“I can’t make anyone do anything,” a frustrated young EMS supervisor recently complained. His struggle centered around getting the current FTOs and senior management to support needed changes to the FTO program he had been tasked with running.
The supervisor, whom I’ll call Jason, had a reputation for being smart, innovative, hardworking and a solid manager — all labels he was willing to accept. But when I pointed out that rallying people around a needed improvement was a leadership issue, he said, “I don’t really think of myself as a leader.”
His comment framed something I’ve been noticing: Many supervisors and middle managers are reluctant to view themselves as leaders. I wanted Jason to help me understand this better, so I invited him to coffee and asked him why he didn’t consider himself a leader.
“Leadership kind of sucks,” he began shyly — and over the course of an hour, he helped me see more deeply into leadership and the younger generation.
The idea of being a leader didn’t appeal to Jason. He couldn’t name a single leader he admired, and he was adamant that he didn’t want to be this larger-than-life person, the type who is often talked about in terms of dead presidents, political leaders, sports figures and the obscenely rich. He doesn’t identify with those people and does not aspire to their achievements.
As we talked, it became clear that his life experience with the older generation, people in positions of power and bosses had left him untrusting of leadership. He talked about the empty promises of his upbringing that said he could be or earn anything he wanted — that if he simply worked hard and educated himself, he would do well in life. “My brother moves furniture and makes more than I do,” he pointed out.
And while respectful in his approach, Jason made it clear that the leadership style of the baby boomers has left him jaded. His reality is educational debt, few jobs to choose from, the need to work multiple jobs, and the chronic failure of local and national leaders to solve the multitude of social ills he witnesses daily as a paramedic. It is evident that he does not see much leadership around him — and what he does see is not inspiring.
Jason views his own boss as “not too bad” but as being primarily focused on self-promotion and protection. He sees him as a lone operator primarily motivated by fear, and he does not want to be like that. Jason has not received any leadership mentoring and scoffs at the idea that there would ever be time in busy EMS organizations to mentor young leaders.
His basic view of leadership is of someone he does not trust trying to convince him to do something he does not want to do.
“Kind of like sales?” I asked.
“Exactly,” he said. “I can’t stand salesmen. Just leave me alone and let me decide for myself.”
He went on to explain that he’d hoped the people above and around him would simply see the importance of improving the FTO program and help him implement the changes. But he also confessed to being reluctant to take on the responsibility and consequences of pushing or promoting something that might fail.
I am grateful for Jason’s insights and candor, and I can’t blame him for not wanting to lead. But I’m also concerned about the future. There are many like Jason who are being lost as potential leaders because too few are leading the new generation toward leadership.
We are failing to influence promising young people toward leadership, and in many ways: by not having a good handle on leadership and how it differs from management; by making leadership something too large, onerous, lonely and unappealing; by neglecting to be models of leadership that young people want to emulate; and by refusing to do the self-revealing and time-intensive work of mentoring young new leaders.