Pinnacle Conference Keynote Encourages Imagination

The keynote speaker asked us — a roomful of hundreds of conference attendees — to describe what’s inside EMS professionals.

We called out from our tables: Passion. Compassion. Commitment. Pride. Competency. Drive. Accountability. Ingenuity.

The speaker took in our words, nodding in agreement or admiration or both, and he gave back a message that reminded us how to use those qualities in the workforce to create meaning and progress.

At the Pinnacle 2008 leadership conference in San Diego, July 28 – Aug. 1, the opening keynote address was delivered on July 29 by Steven Tomlinson, PhD, an economics professor, playwright and hospital chaplain. That’s right — it wasn’t a medical director or operations director or CEO of a large ambulance service provider. It was a tall gentleman whose life story includes being an educator, an artist and a counselor.

So why was he addressing EMS leaders? Because one of the charges that Fitch & Associates, the EMS consulting group that hosts the annual event, consistently puts to system leaders is to learn from the successes and failures of those OUTSIDE of prehospital care. And Dr. Tomlinson proved to be a model for this logic.

When Dr. Tomlinson was approached by Dave Williams, MS, senior associate at Fitch & Associates, about presenting at Pinnacle, he accepted the speaking engagement with two conditions. First, he wanted to poll expected attendees about their greatest challenges. Second, he wanted to do a ride-along. Good conditions.

Dave arranged a ride-along with Ed Racht, MD, medical director of Austin/Travis County EMS System, and Dr. Tomlinson saw firsthand who his audience was going to be. Dave also distributed a survey to EMS leaders, and the responses showed three main concerns:

  • Recruiting reliable EMTs and paramedics;
  • Efficiently deploying resources to best serve the community; and
  • Taking leadership to the next level.

With this crash course in EMS in mind, he started off by asking, “What’s the smallest change you can make that would create the biggest difference?” At my table, we agreed that improving communications with internal and external customers was a necessary change. Another table’s response echoed ours — Say “Thank you.” Dr. Tomlinson repeated the comment and paused, giving extra weight to this simple and effective change.

During his keynote, Dr. Tomlinson humbly shared stories about his experiences as a teacher and student, as well as a customer of emergency medical care. Each narrative, told with the deliberate yet seamless skill of a natural storyteller, held our attention until the payoff — a lesson, a message, a philosophy.

One of the most insightful statements Dr. Tomlinson made that evening should resonate with anyone in EMS: “Work pays off in money, fun and learning. If you have more of two, you can do with less of one.” EMS professionals definitely have less of one. The question is whether we’re providing more of the other two. He encouraged us to allow employees and students to have fun, including telling stories that inspire each other.

Another memorable lesson was about the new generation of students and workers. As a professor of entrepreneurship, Dr. Tomlinson studies the relationships between motivation and innovation and he has learned that young adults seek three things: engagement, meaning and authority. The classic example of this mindset is their attraction to video games, where they’re in charge and actively solve problems. The result is that they don’t trust teachers the way generations in the past have. So in his economics class, he provides the constraints (a scenario), poses the right questions for them to consider and then waits for their solutions. He believes that constraints plus commitment equals creation, a way of thinking that applies to instructors as well as system leaders. He urged the leaders in attendance to select their own constraints before circumstances were placed that limited their solutions.

In his closing, he reminded us that every organization reflects the ego and biases of the leader. But he argued we can disrupt that reflection by encouraging the use of imagination among our employees.

“Imagination is a resource that’s renewable and irresistible,” he said. That statement could be your new mantra. We said we have ingenuity in our ranks. It’s time to use it.

Lisa Bell is the managing editor of JEMS. Contact her at

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