Leadership 911 – Is Leadership in an Emergency Different?

Is “leadership” in an emergency different than that in a business-as-usual environment?

Leadership in general has always been fascinating to me.  For me, watching leadership in action is much like sitting in a public area and “people watching”.  You see all kinds.  The same is true with respect to leadership.  During my previous career, I had the opportunity to work with some very talented leaders.  You know, the ones you’d go to the end of the earth for.  On the flip-side of that, I also had the opportunity to work for some managers that thought they were leaders, but truth be told, they weren’t even good managers.  I’m certain my experiences aren’t unique.  But in both cases, I used the opportunities to learn.

I also had the opportunity in my previous career to participate in a “Regional Leadership Forum (RLF)” that is offered by the Society of Information Management (SIM;  http://www.simnet.org/ ).  This was a terrific learning experience that I still look back on with great appreciation.  I highly recommend the SIM RLF program to anyone interested in developing their leadership skills.

Having worked in a corporate environment and seen both good and not so good leadership, and having participated in a rigorous leadership development program, I’ve often wondered how leadership in an emergency might differ from that found in a business-as-usual environment.  More specifically, how can I become a better leader in both environments and help others become better leaders too.

I’ve read a lot of books and had many conversations with many people about leadership throughout my career.  But to gain some real-world insight, I reached out to several leaders in the public safety arena and interviewed them about their leadership experiences in an emergency.  After all, who sees more emergencies than policemen, firemen, or emergency managers?  I interviewed 12 high ranking officers (Chiefs, Assistant Chiefs, and Deputy Chiefs) in municipal fire and police departments in the St. Louis metropolitan area.  As evidenced by the small sample size and restricted geographic boundaries, I wasn’t concerned about the statistical perfection of my research.  I was only looking for insight.  I should also disclose that I have had a working relationship with these individuals for several years. 

From my interviews, I uncovered the following points …

  • By definition, leadership is leadership.  Whether you are in the public or private sector, business-as-usual or in an emergency, it really doesn’t matter.  It all boils down to leadership being one’s ability to influence others to accomplish goals and arrive at a desired outcome.
  • How we lead is different in an emergency.  Emergencies by nature are dynamic and as such don’t allow for the luxury of time as in a business-as-usual environment.
  • Leaders in an emergency have to be quick decision makers.
  • It’s OK for leaders not to know everything about everything.  But, they do need to solicit input from others and make sure they have someone on the team that can fill the gap.
  • In an emergency, life safety is our number one concern.
  • Timely and effective communication to all stakeholders is critical in an emergency.
  • Not all managers can be leaders, and not all leaders can lead in an emergency.  Experience is a great teacher, but it can be costly.
  • No matter how you slice it, leadership revolves around people.  Leaders lead people.  People work to accomplish goals.  Without people, there is no leadership.  Leaders need to take care of their people, and their people will take care of them.
  • Developing future leaders is strategically important for the organization.

The bigger question becomes how do we educate – prepare – leaders today so that they are ready to effectively deal with the demands of leading through an emergency?  Experience is a double edged sword.  On one side, it’s a desirable strength that we want in our leaders.  However, on the other side it can be a costly substitute for training if it is an outcome of a leader responding to a situation he/she is unprepared to handle.

In this blog, I’ve barely touched the tip of the iceberg on this subject.  I am continuing to develop and refine this material further.  I’ll be sure to update you by way of this blog as well as my profile on Linked In.  In the meantime, I’d like to hear what you think about this.  Feel free to drop me a comment.     

Tip:  Go to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services and access their “Ready In 3” Campaign at   www.dhss.mo.gov/emergencies/readyin3 .  There, you’ll find terrific support on the subject of preparing for disasters.


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