Being a Respected Leader Doesn’t Mean Ruling with an Iron Fist

It’s not always better to be feared than to be respected



Gary Ludwig, MS, EMT-P | From the September 2013 Issue | Wednesday, August 14, 2013

When I started my career, I immediately saw a contrast of leadership styles among different supervisors. One boss I had treated me like the son he never had. He was very approachable and good hearted; he would go out of his way to help others and tutored me and the rest of the crew as a new kid on the job. In return, I noticed everyone went out of their way to make sure they did a good job and would go above and beyond what was expected of them.

Sure, there were a few who mistook his compassion and kindness for weakness, but slowly and surely those employees realized he was not going to be taken advantage of. He reached out and gave a hand to those who were struggling. When an employee had a personal crisis, he made arrangements for them to get time off or made phone calls to others who might be able to help where he couldn’t.

In contrast, I also have experienced a chief who ruled with an iron fist—the slightest infraction and you were called on the carpet. The mere thought of this supervisor calling your name from his office was tantamount to walking the green mile.

Characteristics included never exchanging greetings and only giving a small grunt if others tried to engage him in small talk. His eyes could be piercing and the stare even worse. Employees walked in fear and did nothing outside the rule book for fear of being disciplined.

By watching the different leadership styles, I soon noticed that the shift under the second type of leader had a high incidence of sick leave, on-the-job injuries and transfers to other shifts. The shift with the leader who showed compassion to his employees, meanwhile, had very little sick leave usage or on-the-job injuries, and hardly anyone ever transferred to another shift.

The contrast was clear. Today when I think about the more tyrannical type of chief, I have an image in my head—one of slaves rowing a Roman ship and a man pacing the center aisle with a whip. Slack up a little on rowing, and you feel the whip. 

How can you ever expect employees to reach their full potential if they can’t overcome what’s holding them back? Sometimes an employee needs help getting through whatever is preventing them from advancing, even if that obstacle isn’t work-related. Showing compassion as a leader can be highly effective to help employees reach their potential.

According to Bill George, a Harvard professor and former CEO of Medtronic, the leader must think about the “we” instead of the “I.”

In other words, the leader doesn’t think about him/herself, but about the employees.

Jim Collins, author of Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t, makes a great case for compassion among leaders of an organization with his claim that the most important part of taking a company from “good” to “great” is the leader.

How to Be Compassionate

First, assume the best of all your employees until they prove otherwise. An employee might eventually lose your confidence, but it’s the same as when a teacher starts the semester by saying everyone has an A and it’s up to only you to keep it.

Second, stop the bullying. I’ve noticed throughout my years in management that cliques will always form in the workplace, and you’re subject to bullying and harassment unless you’re a member. As a leader, it’s your job to stop the bullying and the mistreatment of those outside the clique. 


Showing compassion as an EMS manager is not often taught in graduate school. Instead, you’re taught about results and numbers, all devoid of any emotional or open management strategy. As an alternative, all schools should teach the value of treating your employees like we’re supposed to treat our patients—with compassion.

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Administration and Leadership

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Related Topics: Administration and Leadership, Leadership and Professionalism, tyrant, shift manager, leadership styles, leadership advice, ems leadership, compassion, Jems Leadership Sector

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Gary Ludwig, MS, EMT-P

is a deputy fire chief with the Memphis (TN) Fire Department. He has over 35 years of fire, EMS, and rescue experience. He is also the immediate past Chair of the EMS Section for the IAFC. He can be reached at


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