Administration and Leadership, EMS Insider

The Balancing Act: Knowing When to Manage and When to Lead

In my role as a leader, manager, spouse, parent, friend, peer and fellow human being, I often find myself asking this question when facing an issue: “Does this need to be managed, does this need to be led, does this need something in-between—or do I need to shut up and walk away?”

This is a tricky question that, as I mentioned in a previous article, asks us to consider if it’s time to be a smart leader, if it’s time to be a soulful leader, or if it’s a time to take a balanced approach to both. I’m on a continuous personal journey to master this balance.

Management vs. Leadership

To help define this perspective, I need to explain how I look at these approaches. I believe they’re two very different skillsets.

Managing focuses on “smart” business design: Using lean principles to make a process efficient and effective; developing strategic growth plans; building and supporting systems to help administer our fleets and durable medical equipment; hiring, firing and retention processes; budgeting, revenue cycle management, project management, system status management, measuring outcomes, and so on.

Leadership, on the other hand, has to do with our “soul”: values, morals, ethics, and how we interact with and treat our own teams and other people—friend and foe alike.

Leadership means being able and willing to make informed decisions, take calculated risks, and possessing the ability to set a path and vision—and communicate that vision in a manner that encourages the team to want to take the hill, no matter the odds.

It also means getting out of the way to let your team execute, course correcting as needed, and being a skillful personality referee when team dysfunction occurs. Being a leader means making tough decisions, and being the public face of an organization when both good and bad things happen.

What Do Executives Do?

Recently, on my way into the office, I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts. I use podcasts to for most of my self-development exercises and education; they’re convenient, portable, and they can be played back more quickly than I can read, while still allowing me to retain all of the same information.

In this particular episode, called “What Does a CEO Actually Do?” the host set listeners up for a series of upcpoming episodes on the latest in evidence-based leadership science.

I was particularly interested in his discussion about the traits of the best CEOs in America.

As I listened, it became clear to me that scientists have categorized the behavioral traits of CEOs into two categories of skill sets: 1) managerial in nature (what we’ve been calling “smart”); and 2) leadership in nature (what we’ve been calling “soul”).

More importantly, the best CEOs, with their varying styles of management and leadership, had the most success when their style met the needs of the organization at the time they took the helm.

For example, organizations that needed significant blocking and tackling from smarter operations appear to fare well with a CEO who’s grounded in smart managerial skills and styles.

On the other hand, organizations that are operationally savvy and need a soul to lead them to the next level appear to fare well with a CEO who has a strong leadership skill set.

There are also those rare CEOs who can execute both styles well, and apply the appropriate smart or soulful tool to the task at hand.

Developing the Skills

I’ve had the good fortune to have worked with all three executive styles, and have been part of both successful teams (when an appropriate type match existed) as well as unsuccessful teams—when the organization is smart but needs a soul, or a soulful organization needs to work smarter.

I’ve done my best to learn from each of these experiences, both good and bad, to improve my own style and approach.

Developing these skill sets and executive acumen is a mix of many things, such as personality, education, enculturation, emotional intelligence, experience, self-awareness, grit and pure luck.

However, my experience has shown that we’re naturally gifted with one skill set or the other, and then have to learn the deficit skillset through a combination of secondary education, the school of hard knocks (i.e., experience), a mentor or some combination of these three resources.

In addition to learning the skills, one must know when and how to apply them.

This balancing act is similar to the idea of form and function in design: Something with form (i.e., soul) but no function (i.e., smart) is often considered art; something functional without form is often tiring and aggravating. Something with both form and function is considered beautiful, as well as useful.

It’s important to keep in mind that applying the wrong set of skills to a situation (i.e., a type mismatch) often causes dysfunction and frustration amongst teams and individuals.

In the worst cases, a type mismatch may lead to significant organizational and cultural turmoil, financial distress or, ultimately, could lead an organization to its demise.

What To Do?

So, when do you apply leadership skills and when do you apply management skills? My experience has been that the proper application of these skill sets is founded in triaging the issue at hand.

Issues that fall into the category of things and processes have the best outcomes when they’re managed. Issues that involve people are most successful when they’re led.

In a situation that involves change, innovation, growth and disruption, it’s necessary to apply skill sets from both domains.

With these definitions of managing and leading, I challenge EMS executives to cultivate their natural talents—while also developing their “unnatural” talents, so they can truly balance them.

As a mentor once told me, “good judgement comes from experience; experience comes from bad judgement.”

This means it’s OK to make mistakes, just make sure you learn from them.  

EMSology: The Art & Science of EMS

This is the fifth article in Jonathan Washko’s EMSology series, which aims to share the wealth of knowledge and wisdom that Jonathan has gathered in his 30-plus years in EMS. 

He’s worked with countless EMS agencies at both the bottom and top of their games from around the U.S. and other countries.  This series covers a variety of topics, along with best practices learned from other leaders in the industry. 

EMSology includes commentary on a variety of important topics, including: 

  • Healthcare models and policy changes;
  • Leadership and mentoring; 
  • Process improvement; and
  • High-performing teams.

To learn more about how you can integrate your EMS system into a coordinated healthcare system, look to NAEMT and AIMHI on the web for resources, follow @EMSOLOGY or @JonathanWashko on Twitter for for quick insights and links to other resources.