Emergency Managers; Leaders or Managers.

Emergency Managers; Leaders or Managers

Emergency Managers; Leaders or Managers

Is a good emergency manager a manager or a leader?  Over the last fifteen years, I have had the opportunity to work with and observe various people in the role of the Emergency Manager. I have seen some excellent people doing great things. And I saw some terrific people doing…well not such a great job in this field. I saw some great people step up during a crisis and others, let others take command and follow.

Former FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate compares an excellent Emergency Manager to a football coach. That is, you make the game plan, practice that game plan, make adjustments, and on game day, let the team go. You will make some changes but will not have tactical decisions. You need to trust the team. Fugate argues that emergency managers need to be leaders.

The American Society for Public Administration surveyed what an effective Emergency Manager was, and how they have been successful.

“After surveying 300 leaders from the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, state and local emergency management departments as well as police, fire and sheriff departments, my research shows that these leaders know how to enact innovative ideas by working within existing bureaucratic hierarchies and by injecting a sense of passion and purpose that brings along the more risk-averse. This research sought to identify and clarify distinct character traits that exist within emergency management by asking: Describe someone who has managed to enact significant change in respect to more efficient emergency management? Why have they been successful?” (Christine Springer “Emergency Managers As Leaders | PA TIMES Online September 12, 2017” http://patimes.org/emergency-managers-leaders/)

So what are the traits of an effective emergency manager/leader?


The job title does not define leadership. Instead, leadership is a characteristic and a process at the same time. To achieve an organizational goal, a leader must provide purpose, direction, and motivation for the team. The emergency manager may have the title of Manager however it is up to others to judge if that emergency manager is indeed a leader.

Titan HST, the Future of Safety advertisement

As a manager, supervisor, “boss,” people will listen to you because they have to. That is not leadership. Amanda Ripley in her book “The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disasters Strike” writes about a busboy that saved hundreds of lives in a fire. He saved lives because he became a leader when the time came to act. Suzanne Bernier in “Disaster Heroes” writes about people that stepped up and became leaders in various aspects of disaster recovery and response.

Leaders are good at managing themselves. They stay calm under stress and are flexible. They emphasize strengths, build weaknesses of their team, and know who should be on the bus and where they should sit.  In Jim Collins’s book “Good to Great” he argues, hire quality people and lead them to where they fit in the organization. A leader knows the strengths of their team and uses those strengths to be successful. The basic principles of leadership are adaptability, integrity, human, relationships, communication, and responsibility

Being Aware, Knowledgeable and Flexible: The Effective Leader

First and foremost, leaders must be “Semper Gumby” (Always Flexible) a term that I learned as a Corpsman serving with the Marines. You need to be flexible In a disaster, circumstances can change in the blink of an eye, and the leader must be flexible to adjust plans accordingly and be able to consider all the alternatives.

Leaders cannot get bogged down in the bureaucracy. However, they must be aware that “Realigning and leading within the bureaucracy is an important quality but challenging the status quo and framing a vision is not rated highly, particularly by state and local emergency managers.”(Springer PA Times Online 2014)

Effective leaders, it was noted, are open to sharing. With emergency management groups on LinkedIn, and Facebook. It is easier today than ever to find best practices before an emergency occurs. Emergency management leaders are decisive yet flexible so that they make decisions, but if circumstances change, they also adapt to those conditions.

It is easy to take charge when there is a clear delineation of roles. In situations where the designated authority was present to lead, leadership was a natural evolution of planning in action. This same dynamic also occurs where there was no designated authority present. Leaders emerge to address the situation. In so doing, leadership develops naturally in response to what is needed.

Good emergency managers are also open to input from others on-site. Leaders do not make decisions in a vacuum. A “second in command” is an individual who offers valuable suggestions and support and serves as a sounding board. They offer a way to talk out decisions and help to improve the approach to what is happing.

Successful emergency management leaders have a calming effect on both their colleagues and on fellow team members. This effect will be projected to community members as well. The emergency manager needs to be aware of others’ levels of fear and offers reassurance.  This ability gives the feeling of confidence in their capacity to direct everyone to safety. Finally, successful emergency managers act logically. The decisions of the EM need to be appropriate to the situation and congruent with available information.

According to Susan Caba a business author who has interviewed dozens of nationally known business, science, education, professional sports, and philanthropy executives, effective leaders have the following characteristics:

  • A vision of their end goal and the drive to get it done
  • The ability to define and articulate a mission
  • Aptitude for connecting and communicating with others
  • The capacity to influence events, directly or indirectly
  • Willingness to admit mistakes and tolerate them in others
  • Fortitude to make unpopular decisions
  • Core values that guide their actions and decisions

Management vs. Leadership

In the Forbs online magazine, Liz Ryan wrote a piece on management vs. leadership. She states that managers are concerned with forecasting, budget, planning and controlling. She says that managers are not taught to lead. Ryan argues that Leadership has very little to do with managing, budgeting and so on. So what is leadership?

The EM deals with the administration of policies, programs, and duties. Leadership, however, takes on an entirely different means motivating individuals and helping them to follow a leader into a new direction.  An individual can be a good leader and manager, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that a good manager is going to be a good leader – or vice versa.  It is often confused to be one of the same. Thus it is important to establish that it simply isn’t. A good leader understands the difference.

When I was in the Navy, it is ingrained in Sailors that it took a good follower to make a good leader. David Marquet turned this concept on its head.

David Marquet is the author of “Turn the Ship Around” and U.S. Navy submarine Captain. Marquet has the view that leadership is about empowering the people in your charge. He argues in his book that it is essential to create leaders at every level.  This idea he calls the Leader-Leader shift.

When I interview David, we talked about discipline and how the leader needs to look at the entire situation and the solution. We will discuss that issue in a later segment on the EM Weekly blog.

Failures happen. You have all seen the aftermath of an organizational mistake play out on the television.  However, failures in leadership can doom the organization. People may lose jobs or worse lives. Leaders succeed in the face of failure. Sucess occurs with putting faith in their team, adapt their strategies, focuses on what is best for the organization, and make hard decisions. As a leader, you can delegate tasks. However, you cannot delegate responsibility. The effective leader never allows his team to take the hit for their bad decisions.

Delegation and Supervision

It takes a team to handle crises and emergency situations. Emergency managers need to learn the fine art of delegation, parceling out job duties to others on your team. Ensuring that each member of the team is doing their job correctly and trained properly is a responsibility that could be a matter of life or death in this position. Delegating and supervising are tasks that require diplomacy, tact, and interpersonal understanding

“While being aware, knowledgeable, and inspiring confidence were traits most often cited as characteristics of successful emergency managers by all of the respondents, those qualities are followed closely by being able to find the right talent and build a team. Realigning and leading within the bureaucracy is an outstanding quality but challenging the status quo and framing a vision is not rated highly, particularly by state and local emergency managers” (Springer PA Times Online 2014).

A great leader in emergency management understands what is important. A good emergency manager knows that motivating their staff is essential.  We are asking people to work hard under pressure in a fast-paced environment. The Emergency Manager needs to keep the big picture in mind. They need to let the team that they put together do their job and trust them.

It is important for effective leaders to be decision makers.  Strong leaders will be the fiber that brings a group together to perform well under pressure.  We often hear about how policies will affect sound emergency management, and while this is true, the leader that inspires others will simply be the piece that pushes an emergency management team to success.

Developing Relationships

Emergency Managers; Leaders or ManagersRelationships are the key to successful operations in emergency management. The old saying that “you should not be trading business cards at the scene of an emergency” has many truths to it.  In the context of leadership, trust is the first block to building that team. Trust creates unity and the willingness to work toward the stated goals.

After an Incident Action Plan (IAP) is developed and dispersed, there is a level of trust by the line troops that the people making this plan know what is going on. Without that trust, the command system would fail. The line troops would just freelance. Freelancing leads to mistakes, and mistakes lead to loss of life and property.  Without trust, you cannot build relationships.

Effective leaders recognize the value of relationships. In Orange County California, the emergency management discipline has relationship building down to a science. In the interview with the County of Orange Director of Emergency Management Donna Boston, she discusses the importance of the relationships. The Orange County Operational Area (OA) holds a monthly meeting with all of the jurisdictions and strategic partners. The meetings are informational and conducting the business of reviewing county plans, updates of what is happing, and reports of the working groups occurs there. However, the building of relationships is the most important part of the meetings. Making connections before a disaster is key to a successful outcome.

The List

There is a host of other abilities and attributes needed for a leadership position in emergency services. However, these are some of the most important skills you will need to have to be a successful Emergency Manager.

  1. Adaptability (Semper Gumby) – Leaders have to adapt to cope and sometimes have the direction to win. Emergency management leaders know the difference.
  2. Composure – Good leaders seldom “stress out.” They remained calm and focused even in the middle of extreme chaos.
  3. Communication – It’s important to be able to give clear and understandable instructions.  Leaders need to listen as well as direct. Leaders have to listen with your eyes and ears. Understand what other members of the team are saying – and not saying – with words and body language. Leaders have to process a lot of information and different suggestions from others, instantly. Effective leaders have an outstanding ability to communicate when speaking and writing; excellent communication skills are essential.
  4. Critical thinking – Some leaders’ say they have to step outside of themselves so they can objectively analyze a situation. Emotions may drive a leader to one course of action. However, they must have the ability to examine solutions and their possible consequences.
  5. Decisiveness – Leaders have to be able to make the best decisions quickly.
  6.  Hesitation will cost lives and wastes valuable time.
  7. Facilitation – The best EMs are enablers. They process information from others, assign specific responsibilities, and collaborate with team members to accomplish a common objective.
  8. Goal-oriented with organizational skills – Just like using the ICS system in an emergency. The EM should use those skills in leading their team. Using SMART goals and SWOT analysis to improve the team. This process then becomes the norm in crisis.
  9. Prioritization – Emergency managers need to be able to immediately identify and list priorities and triage them for an emergency response.
  10. Receptive to innovation – Effective leaders know what procedures are tried and true. However, EMs are also receptive to new ideas. Keeping an open mind to new ideas and suggestions is essential; one of them might save the day.
  11. Responsibility – Leaders are willing to be accountable for their decisions, whether right or wrong. A leader can delegate authority, not responsibility.


The Blue Cell advertisement
About Todd De Voe 72 Articles
Involved in Emergency Response, Emergency Management, Education and Volunteer Management for over 25 years.Served as a Corpsman assigned to the Fleet Marine Force of the United States Navy. I now teach Emergency Management at Coastline Community College, I am also the Host of EM Weekly.


  1. This article was very interesting and true. Here in NM I know a few EM’s that just love the title of Manager, but they are horrible bosses and then there are Leaders who continually promote their staff and deflect kudos and praise to those in their department and off of them. I have a couple of posters in my office stating difference between a boss and a leader to continually remind myself one cannot do this job alone and to reiterate that it is a team that is led not directed. Keep up the great work!!

  2. Great article with some good pointers that all of us need to keep in mind. I think that from time to time all of us need to be reminded on how to be a more effective EM Leader!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.