, ,

Three Tips on Leadership From the Street

Someone is in trouble and the clock is ticking. That’s why they called you. You don’t know what’s going on yet, but you know that people are counting on you to make things better. Sirens wail, lights are swirling around you, and the crack of the dispatcher’s voice from the radio say:

“Roger Medic One. En-route. 1056.”

“Easy on the gas, John.”

Your voice is both authoritative and reassuring. The young man driving is still pretty new. He’s been on the street for about five months. You notice his knuckles are white on the steering wheel. You know his adrenaline is pumping, and that your voice is one of the few things that can keep him out of “the tunnel.” A cool phrase you coined for tunnel vision.
You remember a little tuft of gray hair – the back of an old lady’s head – the glare of brake lights, and the swerving maneuver you had to execute a few years back. You almost took traffic head on that night because an old lady panicked and hit the brakes in front of you. She probably didn’t hear the sirens until you were on top of her. You were probably driving a little too fast.
You check your charts, clip a new “run sheet” to the outside of your clipboard, fill in some basic information, and wonder about what kind of situation you might be driving into. It could be a nose bleed, a slip and fall, a heart attack, an ectopic pregnancy, or a bullet in the chest. You take out your pocket reference and flip through a protocol or two as a refresher for some of the more complex ones.
You notice a crowd ahead and lights flashing. Good, you think, police are already here. You glance down at your clip board and key the microphone.

“Dispatch, Medic One on scene.”

You keep your message short and to the point.

“Roger, Medic One. On scene. 1103.”

Faces turn in your direction and the crowd parts as you jot down the time and survey the scene from your truck. You make make mental notes of the wind direction, power lines overhead, that soccer field you passed one block away. No major threats yet and you have a place in mind for the helicopter if you need it. You know which way you’re going to move this crowd if hazardous materials are a factor. There is no visible smoke and the ground is dry.
Faces convey unspoken concern for the situation and relief that you’re there. The number of people and their energy level tells you this scene has been in play for about 20-25 minutes. You take a quick look at your partner. He’s okay and he knows what to do. It’s show time.

Whether you’re running the streets or navigating danger-filled hallways of a government bureaucracy, leadership has it’s challenges. Many times, your preparedness and soft skills often have more bearing on the outcome than technical skills. The ability to tune in, respond to, and influence the energy of the people you’re working with, the people watching, and the people you’re there to help can make all the difference.
Here are a few tips I learned from the street:

1. Be Prepared. Two of the most well known components of being prepared include training and experience. I’d like to add a third component of being prepared: networking.

  • Training is talked about a lot and is pretty important. I won’t belabor this point except to say that that training should include more than the technical stuff. Any position that involves relationships with other people has an emotional component to it. Knowing what to do makes little difference if our emotions keep us from doing what we know.
    • In a street example, putting the pedal to the metal to save someone’s life can cause tunnel vision or even cause someone to “lock up” – making it impossible for them to function. The excitement of what’s going on around them is overwhelming. I’ve seen out of control emotion cripple good people more than once.
    • In an office example, confronting a challenge issued from a subordinate may trigger anger or fear. Even with good technical training, a manager who responds through anger or fear may do exactly the opposite of what their technical training taught them. They may act defensively and make a bad situation worse.
    • It is possible to expose yourself to emotional training. In my experience, a good mentor or an on-the-job training program can help with this. In the absence of a good mentor, personal experience coupled with retrospection and self discipline can do the trick. Just be kind to yourself in the latter situation and allow for mistakes.
  • Experience is critical. It helps us to read between the lines and see things that other people don’t see. On the street, I check the wind direction, look for potential landing zones and read the crowd. While someone might write these bullet points in a training manual, it doesn’t really become part of you until you have a cloud of hazardous materials floating towards a crowd, have to land a helicopter, or have to deal with a psycho with a gun and a death wish. What people don’t always consider is the fact that experience doesn’t have to come entirely from ourselves.
    • Having someone on your team who has the experience may be all you need. Make it a habit to connect with people who have more experience than you do in whatever environment you want to learn to deal with. Take them out for coffee. Establish a relationship and find a way to bring them value. You want to be able to call on them when you’re going into a situation you’re not experienced with. Invite them to share their wisdom. Their wisdom is a great asset for you & gives you a quick jump up the learning curve.
  • Networking. As with the experience discussion above, your network can mean the difference between success and failure. Connect with important resources before a crisis happens. Find out what they need and how to activate their support.
    • On the street, I was always aware of my backup options. I had engines and ladder trucks for resources, other ambulance crews, a helicopter, police, power company, gas company, and escalation procedures. In the thick of things was no time to be flipping through the yellow pages. If I thought I might need a medivac, I needed to give the helicopter crews time to get geared up, get the bird fired up, and plot their course. Networking with these important resources ahead of time gave me (and everyone else involved) a huge advantage.
    • As leaders in the office, we often need backup from human resources, political leadership, the training department, financial resources, other project managers, and from the people we’re serving. The middle of a crisis is not the best time to start connecting with these important resources. When you do find yourself in a real crisis, your response will be much more powerful if you already have these relationships built.

2. Tune In. Most human communication is non-verbal. If you’re tuned in to people on your team, people watching, and people you’re trying to help, you can gather a huge amount of information as if right out of the air.

  • On the street, I could tell a lot about what was going on before I ever set eyes on the actual victim (s). How many people were there, how they were dressed, which way (s) they were looking / pointing, how receptive they were to my arrival, their age… all gave me clues.
  • My partners and I used to play a game. We’d try to out-diagnose the doctors back at the hospital. We’d bet in doughnuts. We were not officially qualified to render an actual diagnosis, of course, but we would often guess the right diagnosis before the doctors knew what it was. Sure, they had labs, med school, and detailed knowledge of human physiology to help them. But we had eyewitness testimony, mechanism of injury, first hand knowledge of the environment our patients came from, and our years of street experience to help us. Being tuned in gave us huge advantages.
  • In the office, pay attention to what people are talking about, their mood, how they respond to you when they see you, how they get to work – all of these things give you clues as to what’s going on. By tuning in, you are reading the signs and giving yourself a chance to be proactive or respond more effectively to whatever you’re asked to deal with.

3. Manage the Energy Around You. On the street, we had a saying “Take your own pulse before taking the pulse of your patient.” Managing energy starts with managing yourself. Doubt me? Try taking someone’s pulse if you’re freaking out vs taking someone’s pulse when you’re nice an calm and you’ll see what I mean. The energy we bring into an environment has a direct effect on others around us.

  • Once we understand this concept, we can put it to good use. If we know that bringing panic to a patient in trouble will cause their blood pressure and pulse to rise, we know that the opposite is also true. Our own attitude and energy level, therefore, is a big part of the “medicine” we provide.
  • I used to teach my students to think of themselves as bringing calm into chaos. When trained emergency personnel walk in, all eyes are on us. People are reading our body language to include facial expressions and physical movements just as we are reading theirs. The way we carry ourselves makes a big difference in the confidence level of the crowd and the energy level of everyone on scene.
  • Managing energy means bringing positive energy and being centered on that. When your partners are on the fence and near panic, your calm may be enough to keep them calm. When the people you’re leading are upset, your reassurance and genuine smile might be enough to bring them back.

Dave Dejewski worked on the streets for more than 12 years as first responder, a fireman, an EMT, and the military equivalent of a civilian paramedic. He taught hundreds of students, trained dozens of new responders, and currently volunteers through organizations like the Boy Scouts of America and FEMA’s Community Emergency Response Teams.

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

Corey McCarren

You have no idea how much I wanted that story to have a conclusion. I’m sitting here thinking “What next?!” Your point about experience is definitely critical, and is related to paying a high level of attention to detail. For an executive, missing one little detail could cost the agency a lot of money.

Jeffrey Levy

Wow, David. So much goodness stuffed into one blog post.

In college, I taught rockclimbing, and all of us outdoor program instructors were required to take advanced first aid, including simulations. Nowhere near what you dealt with, of course, but I have at least some idea.

Your points are rock solid. I’m a HUGE believer in building relationships constantly. You never know when you’ll need someone, and when that call comes as you’re about to shut down, you’re much more likely to pick up when it’s someone who’s helped you before.

And there’s the experience part. I’ve directly managed EPA’s web response to 9/11 and Katrina, and been the manager overseeing people for our BP and Japan nuclear emergency web responses. It’s impossible to understand the pressure until you’ve been through it, so your advice to keep an eye on new folks is essential. For the last two events, I’ve sat my team down before they started working and explained that their skills were solid, but to remember to take care of themselves. If they feel the panic rising, they need to walk away for a bit.

Thanks for another terrific blog post!

Gordon Lee Salmon

Thanks David for a great story with street sense. As I work with leaders today I try to help them see that leadership is not all about them but all about others who can share leadership so we can bring all resources needed for a given situation into action. Certainly shared vision is more valuable than just my vision alone.

David Dejewski

Thanks for the really positive feedback, guys.

Corey – this story has many endings. I’m betting there are many stories in your own future to look forward to!

Jeffrey – If you taught rock climbing, I’m pretty sure you experienced much of the same. I believe the human experience is pretty consistent. You’ve no doubt had to be prepared, stay tuned in, and network ahead of time to stay on top of your game. You’ve also likely seen your share of people freeze up, amaze you with their natural talent, and sharpen your saw, so to speak. Thanks for sharing your experience!

Gordon – getting a grip on the fact that leadership rarely works alone is one of those force multipliers for sure.

Luis & T. Jay – thanks for such positive feedback. Your comments made me smile to read them.