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Why the Best EMS Leaders Are Actually Teams

Most of us agree that the Lone Ranger, I-can-do-it-all-myself cowboy paramedic has no place in the team environment of the emergency scene. But we may be less likely to let go of the Lone Ranger mystique when it comes to leadership.

We love the myth of the lone leader. We illustrate our organizational structures with charts topped by a single leader and we admire pictures of Presidents Roosevelt, Truman and Johnson sitting alone in their war rooms with pained expressions of heavy responsibility. We’re often told, It’s lonely at the top, and The buck stops here. And indeed, the lone leader often carries the brunt of criticism when things go wrong (whether or not that criticism is deserved). When things go right, it is also the solo leader who often gets praised. Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel, Henry Ford created the assembly line, Ronald Reagan ended the Cold War and Bill Gates built Microsoft. And so on.

Yet when taking a closer look at big accomplishments, we don’t find lone leaders—we find great groups and teams. Michelangelo’s ceiling was not a solo act but actually the work of 14 artists and a crew of more than 200. The Manhattan Project, the polio vaccine, the first manned flight to the moon, the Disney studio, Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center and the Human Genome Project were all the accomplishments of great teams.

“We have to recognize a new paradigm,” writes leadership scholar Warren Bennis, “not great leaders alone, but great leaders who exist in a fertile relationship with great groups.” When senior executives of international corporations were recently asked by The Economist who will be most influential in the coming years, a majority answered “teams of leaders.” We live in a time when change, information and technology are all speeding faster than one person alone can keep up with. “One is too small a number to produce greatness,” Bennis adds.

But great groups and teams don’t just happen. In my work, I’ve noticed that great groups and teams emerge from a very specific set of leader beliefs, attitudes and actions.

First, great teams emerge when leaders bridle their ego and let go of the need to be the lone answer person and decider. They admit they don’t have the answers and actively recruit others’ input about vision, direction and next steps. These leaders don’t worry about someone taking their job, actively recruiting people better than themselves. They’re not afraid that smart, successful hard-chargers will eclipse them; instead, they go looking for the best talent internally and from other organizations.

Second, great teams emerge when leaders call them to a big, hairy, audacious vision and mission. I’m not talking about a flowery mission statement, but about something that gets the juices flowing. No matter how the vision ranks in the scope of the world, the team believes it is doing something vitally important and worthy of all its effort and energy. When creating the Macintosh computer, Steve Jobs inspired his team by promising they were creating something “insanely great.” Leaders galvanize the group by infusing deep meaning in the work.

Third, team-building leaders trust the team and allow great latitude in how the work gets done. They give the members what they need and then let them loose. In so doing, they inspire great trust and loyalty and make room for the tinkering trial-and-error processes that often accompany great accomplishments. In these groups, failures are expected and viewed as necessary lessons.

Watching these groups work can be fascinating. I recently watched a team at a large EMS company wrestle with balancing the management workload with continued growth. What stood out was the level of productive disagreement and candor that accompanied the group. Arguments were filled with passion, and people wanted to stay late and get things done.

Even though the members of this group were clearly working harder than anyone else in the company, I doubt they regret the sacrifice. Doing something in collaboration with others is a heady experience that releases creativity and talent in a way that working alone does not.