Emergency Leadership at Anna Maria College

Emergency Leadership
When considering our Bachelor of Science in Emergency Leadership, we often find potential students wrestling with the utility of the degree. Why study leadership? Why study it with you? Isn’t leadership a natural skill, one that you either have or don’t and thus can’t be taught? We’re quick to debunk such notions, of course. Leadership can be taught and leaders can be developed, and we’re here to help make that happen.

But the fact remains, few ideas receive as much attention resulting in as little true understanding as the concept of leadership. Leadership is the foundational principle upon which all traditional, paramilitary-style emergency services in the US are built. It’s importance at all levels of organization can’t be overstated. It’s wielded both in official and unofficial capacities, and despite numerous attempts, both scholarly and vocationally, remains a nebulous and ill-defined principle that is as important as it is mystifying. Whole fields of academic study have wrangled with the idea of what leadership is, but I think it’s important as well to consider what it’s not. While the study of leadership is a vast undertaking, I think there are three things leadership universally is not:

Homogenous. There is no single definition of good leadership because the word means different things in different situations. The leadership required on the fire ground, or a crime scene, or at a cardiac arrest, is a far different animal from the kind of leadership required in the board room or before a city council or local governmental authority. Leaders who adopt a one-size-fits-all mentality are bound to fail sizable constituencies of personnel and the public. Flexibility, empathy, and a growth mindset are some of the most important skillsets emergency leaders need in order to succeed.

Static. While the core principles of good leadership haven’t changed in hundreds of years, in today’s emergency services landscape the mechanics of leadership are as fluid a dynamic as any other societal component. What works managing providers from Generation X is far different from what it takes to engage and lead Millenials. This isn’t to say that one demographic is better or worse than the other (and I question the utility of putting too much weight on the pop psychology that underpins so much of our “understanding” of the sociological framework that brought us the concept of Gen X and Millenial in the first place), but it does recognize that, much as we admonish students today to be lifelong learners, the same is even truer of leaders. Evolution doesn’t stop for anyone, so the leader who sets his or her style in concrete and refuses to learn and adapt, is guaranteed to alienate, or at least fail to lead effectively, at least half the people in their charge

Valued. There. I said it. True leadership – which is distinctly different then management – is in short supply in today’s emergency services. I think the causes are rooted in vast bureaucracies led by insufficiently trained and capable personnel, who that chosen as their crutch the collection of vast amounts of data and metrics. Data is only as good as the use to which it is put, and today’s emergency leaders by and large do not understand what to do with the terabytes of data they collect, and they have even weaker understanding of the soft skills (those traits that are impossible to quantify and, thus, frightening to many leaders in the field) necessary to lead high-performance teams of men and women putting their lives on the line in some of the toughest jobs in America today. Combine that with the need for leaders to also play the political game in an environment where money and resources to accomplish their service’s mission can be scarce and tough to secure, true leadership requires a complex mix of art and science that few people possess naturally. Organized, purposeful study of leadership is the best way toward restoring its place in the emergency services.

The 21st century is shaping up to be the product not simply of change, but of historically rapid change. The pace of evolution in business and commerce is one of unparalleled speed and complexity. Emergency services will feel the effects of this light-speed innovation and disruption in the near and far future, and the consequences of having leaders in the field who haven’t learned how to match this evolution will be dire. Technology is wondrous, but far more important are the men and women called upon to put it to use serving the public.

Since 1995, Ted Flanagan, MFA, NRP, has worked in urban 911 and the fire service, and as a flight paramedic. He teaches in the BS in Emergency Leadership and EMS Programs at Anna Maria College.

Written by Ted Flanagan

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