Being a paramedic during the formative years of my working life, I’ve been surprised at how many of the lessons that I learned on the job have translated to the business world.
Working as a paramedic, it is easy for your ego to grow to an unhealthy size. The job is one in which you work with either one partner on an ambulance, or as part of a small team on a fire rescue squad. You’ll find yourself in some crazy situations, expected to manage them effectively on your own. There are medical guidelines, but so much of what we did was “act, and ask for forgiveness” – especially if you were considered one of the good medics. And who didn’t think they were one of those?
Managing lifesaving care and emergency situations, driving like a bat out of hell (sorry, insurance companies), and taking charge of chaotic scenes adds up. We became adrenaline addicts, and we grew our egos to match – having that ego allowed us to take control in those situations of chaos where nobody was in charge. Sometimes that ability was essential for patient safety. Plus, it simply takes some ego to do some of the treatments that we had to do.
This isn’t a medical blog, so I will spare my readers the gory details. But we’ve all seen TV and movies where they use the defibrillator paddles: putting enough electricity through someone’s chest that equates to about 265 foot/lbs. of mechanical force. That takes chutzpah, and is terrifying the first time you do it. The 30th time, when you do it in front of a crowd with nonchalance? That’s ego.
That same ego also tends to prevent us from admitting that we are capable of error. It drives us much further down the wrong decision path because to go a different direction would indicate that our diagnostic skills were less than optimal, resulting in a huge ego blow. I’ve seen it more times than I care to remember where a paramedic who outranked me made a bad diagnosis on a patient and continue to insist that their diagnosis was correct despite all the evidence in front of them. I admit my own mistakes, and feel fortunate that I was able to learn and grow from them.
In my professional life, I have learned that taking my ego out of the equation as much as possible, whether in decision making or a learning opportunity provides me with the best opportunity for success. As leaders, we have to remember that we are not in our position to take care of ourselves, but to provide the best for our organization and for those who have placed our trust in us. Research shows that leaders who serve selfish interests are not ones that are successful in the long term; trust is lost, and people will lose their interest in following a person in that position.
An ego and that sense of self-service can also create other obstacles to success. When our egos are in control, we become convinced of our own greatness, and will allow ourselves to fall into a position where we won’t ask for help, we resist deviation from the path that we set, and we fail to learn from the mistakes that we inevitably make. Setting goals that nobody could meet, we will micromanage from our perceived position of superiority while being unable to allow ourselves to allow others to be right, even when they are.
If an out of control ego combines with success, worse symptoms can develop – anything from paranoia to career- or life-ending decisions. Examples abound in the business world where a leader with an out of control ego has made bad decisions: John DeLorean’s cocaine deal as an attempt to finance his company. Or, more recently, Elon Musk’s tweets leading to SEC sanctions and the loss of his position with Tesla.
So, how do we keep our egos under control? Leaders and executives in powerful positions can find themselves in a position where ego growth is reinforced. We have to take compliments and praise with acceptance, but not necessarily taking it to heart. True friends are an invaluable resource that can provide real feedback to us that is unfiltered and check us as we need. And, we need to be ever self aware – yes, a bit of navel gazing is a good thing – as we look at what we do wrong, where we need to grow, and how we can do better.
If we can lead with selflessness and focus on the organization and the people that we mean to serve, we will be more effective leaders. Accepting our fallibility and learning from our mistakes will ultimately make us better at what we do, and lead us to making better decisions. Rather than misdiagnosing and killing our businesses, we can work with our teams, learn from each other, and thrive.