What I Wish I Had Known

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I remember the excitement I had when I heard those words so many years ago. The excitement that carried strongly through 2 days of celebrating with my husband, anticipating the new world I was about to be part of; making a mental list of all the mountains I couldn’t wait to move! This excitement was quickly drowned by a sinking feeling deep in my gut. It felt like running out of gas on a country highway at one in the morning and your cell phone is dead; it’s dark, there is nobody around, and you cannot phone a friend.

Whether it comes right away, or later—because of the reaction of people we thought were friends or feeling overwhelmed in a new situation you were expected to handle with precision, we’ve all felt that feeling as a new leader. By sharing our stories with one another, the success and the failures, we all grow.

I remember getting so much advice from those who walked the road before me, some solicited some not. The stories were sometimes shocking, often comical and always gave me perspective and insight into my own blunders – most importantly the stories many shared with me taught me the importance of humility and the ability to laugh at myself, admit my mistakes, learn and move on. At some point, the tide started turning, and friends and colleagues began asking me for my stories and advice. Although I often felt like I wasn’t experienced (i.e. old enough) to be offering any advice I realized it’s not necessarily the age or years of experience behind the story that makes it meaningful. The power is in the ability to share an experience through storytelling—finding common ground amongst the hierarchy of titles and job descriptions.

I think it is easy to lose sight of how our words and actions can affect others as we are wrapped up in our day to day and moving down the checklist of tasks. The influence of a leader in an organization, even an informal leader, is long lasting and not to be taken for granted. Over the past year, I’ve been talking to many EMS leaders of the past and present. I’ve been asking them what they wish they would have known when they first started their leadership journey, and what advice they might give to others just starting out. Here are 10 of the most common answers I received.

Top 10 Things I Wish I Had Known

  1. I wish I would have known I could be myself. Being myself earned me the role, but suddenly it didn’t seem like enough. At first, I thought others were putting all this pressure on me to be an amazing supervisor immediately – in hindsight, I realize I was putting the pressure on myself and it was totally unnecessary. Being myself allowed me to be a more effective supervisor for my team and I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to figure it out.
  2. I wish I would have learned earlier how important listening is. Listening to understand your people, listening to learn and listening to understand the politics that are happening beyond the surface.
  3. I wish I would have known that I didn’t have to be right all the time; I wasn’t expected to be right all the time. I was only expected to be an honest and reliable resource for my team.
  4. Change is slow. PAINFULLY slow. In EMS there is constant instant gratification – you see a problem with a patient, you fix it, you drop them off. Transitioning to an administrative role and learning that change is slow and takes time (SO MUCH TIME!) is more difficult than I ever would have imagined. I had to really learn to see the long game.
  5. It’s not a “day job”. As a leader, you’re never off duty. Whether you’re on a regular rotation as a shift supervisor, or in the office as a manager or director, EMS is a 24/7 world which means you work nights, weekends and holidays right along with your team. You may not be on a truck or at a station—but you’re still available to them all the time.
  6. I wish I would have understood how important mission, vision, and values really are to a company, and how important it is to talk about them with staff.
  7. We’re all learning, and it is OK to ask for help.
  8. Just because a staff member is asking me a question, it does not mean they are challenging my authority. As a leader, it took me a long time to realize that I should embrace a staff member challenging a decision so long as they are doing it in a constructive manner.
  9. I wish I would have known how much of an impact I have on people. I don’t mean that in an arrogant way. I’ve had staff bring up conversations we had years ago, and I had forgotten all about it—but they were still carrying that encounter with them.
  10. That it wasn’t for me. I thought I wanted to be a supervisor – a leader. I was wrong. I was unhappy with the role and everyone knew it but me, and I was becoming destructive.
    When I came to the realization that I wasn’t the right person for the role, my boss allowed me a front row seat to the best example of leadership I have personally witnessed. He allowed me to step back from the role but didn’t forget about me; he continued to invest in me as an employee and as an individual despite the certain protest of others. To this day, he continues to provide guidance on my professional endeavors and is someone I truly look to for honest advice.
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new supervisors and managers, Professional Ambulance Association of Wisconsin (PAAW), Wisconsin


Samantha Hilker

Samantha Hilker is the founder of Hilker Project & Strategy Management, LLC. She is a lover of books and favors a facilitative leadership style. Samantha believes the future of EMS, and humanity, resides in our ability to build relationships, work together and play nice in the proverbial sandbox. She is a licensed Critical Care Paramedic in the state of Wisconsin, and her passion for patient care is still a driver for her personally and professionally. Samantha held positions as a paramedic, supervisor, staff development manager and project manager. She has successfully led and managed organizational change, process improvement and public engagement efforts. After finishing her master's degree in organizational leadership, Samantha started her own company with a goal of helping more EMS and healthcare organizations strengthen their leadership teams, effectively share their stories and better engage the communities they serve.

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