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The Navy SEAL Guide to EMS Leadership

—6 Battle Tested Lessons for Positive Change

Have you ever worked for someone who takes complete responsibility for ALL their actions?

Someone who never passes the buck?

I have.

It’s awesome.

It’s inspiring.

It’s leadership to the core.

One of the officers I served with followed this creed. He never passed the buck. Never. He took complete responsibility for everything in his charge.


He was also a complete hard-ass.

But it didn’t matter. Everyone still loved him and wanted to work for him… including me.


Because he knew the secret.

The same secret I just read about in Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin.

A lesson I learned by watching a great example, but didn’t really understand or even have a name for until now.

A lesson all EMS and air medical crews can learn . . . from a book that teaches actual steps to leadership success.

Here’s the overarching premise of the book:
If you want people to follow you, to truly buy in to your message, you absolutely must take complete ownership of ALL your decisions.

All of ‘em . . . Period.

EMS and Air Medical Mastery

Watching someone take ownership for everything they do is invigorating.

When I first saw extreme ownership in action, I didn’t understand the reasons why I wanted to be part of it. I just knew I wanted to work for the guy who practiced extreme ownership . . . and so did everyone else.

What about you?

Is your experience in EMS and Air Medical similar to the “complete ownership” mantra of leadership?

I hope so . . . but I have some doubts. Here’s why:

I hate to admit this, but my experience with air medical leadership is how I broke the code on the LOL acronym. LOL, as you probably already know, is a text acronym for laugh-out-loud.

Before I learned the acronym, I used to laugh out loud every time I heard air medical and leadership paired. I simply couldn’t help it. My personal experience caused me to laugh every time I heard the two words in the same sentence.

The experience ended up the meme I use to remember LOL . . . and the experience (albeit odd) is one of few positive memories I have from watching EMS and air medical leadership.

I’m happy to admit my air medical experience is unusual.

Two of my previous employers were so inept at leadership that neither company still exists. Sad but true.

Hopefully, your EMS and air medical leadership experience is better.

But even if it is, there’s still room to improve. That’s the goal!

Improvement is key. Improvement is the hallmark of any professional. Improvement is the prize.

This article highlights six of the leadership principles Jocko and Leif teach in extreme ownership. It gives you ideas about how to use the principles to improve your EMS and air medical.

Six Principles of Leadership from Navy SEALs

Here are six principles of leadership from Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win and how you can use them in your EMS and air medical career:

#1 Take Ownership

Our effectiveness as leaders depends on how much we own what’s on our plate. It’s natural to try and protect ourselves by rejecting ownership and responsibility for less than positive outcomes. My advice is to fight the urge. As Willink points out in his book, if he had dodged responsibility it would have undermined him. By owning the problem, he was able to fix it.

#2 Lose Your Ego

Stop slowing yourself down worrying how others perceive you. Do the right thing because you know it’s the right thing to do. Period. Then let the chips fall where they fall. Self-protection is all about our egos, isn’t it? Willink and Babin point out that ego can be a good thing too. It’s part of what drives us to succeed. But it can get in our own way. Usually it happens when we take our eye off the mission and start worrying about winning and losing by less important measures—like status.

#3 Support Your Team

EMS Flight Safety Network is all about team. EMS and air medical professionals know they can’t accomplish much of anything without total team support. Willink and Babin call this “covering and moving.” Team is really the whole game. And it’s essential everyone on the team get this point. The moment a leader or others are out for themselves and their own win, everyone loses.

#4 Keep It Simple

EMS is simple. Find the patient, treat the patient, move the patient to a higher level of care. But how we do all that can get complicated in a hurry if we’re not careful. Here’s why simple is best: A complicated plan is hard to communicate, hard to understand and hard to execute. Don’t make it hard. Keep it simple.

#5 Stay Focused

There are a million distractions in EMS and Air Medical. Make your focus the patient. If we lose focus on the patient, failure is inevitable. Nobody succeeds trying to juggle a thousand different priorities. Set one realistic goal at a time and stay focused on that goal to completion.

#6 Empower Your People

This is critical and probably the most neglected in EMS and air medical. As a pilot, I understand the desire to maintain control. You might think if you maintain control over every detail, you have a greater chance of success. But you’re wrong. Reality is you can’t control every detail. Nobody can. You have to trust your team. Leaders delegate. Willink and Babin stress training, empowerment, and communicating clear responsibilities and expectations.

Where To Go From Here

You might be wondering where to begin?

You may be hoping to improve yourself and your program by implementing all the lessons above.

And you can . . .but

My advice is to pick one. Start there. Master it. Then pick one more.

Take ownership, lose your ego, support your team, keep it simple, stay focused and empower your people. Remember all the above, focus on one at a time and you and your EMS base will see marked improvements in leadership, productivity . . .

. . . and happiness.


Here is the audio version:



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Troy Shaffer
Troy Shaffer

About the Author: Troy is an Air Medical Career Expert passionate about a team approach to improving air medical safety from the ground up. Troy is a former Army medic, Army pilot, Coast Guard pilot and EMS pilot. Troy has taught hundreds of wannabe flight medics, flight nurses and EMS pilots the exact steps needed to launch air medical careers.

    1 Response to "The Navy SEAL Guide to EMS Leadership"

    • Fed up

      EMS doesn’t need leadership in the same vein as the military or special operations. Our leadership stems from our integrity, our competency, and the standard of care.

      Our leadership culture is bullshit anyways. Supervisor and management are titles for desk jockeys who only care about uuh and other bullshit. It’s the only way an ems provider can stop killing their bodies
      There is no national leadership standard, the AAA’s ASM course is out of touch with the majority of EMS and paramedics are the only providers capable of leadership.

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