Beyond traditional leadership: Re-defining emergency management core competencies

By Sarah Thompson

Emergency managers have always operated in a paradigm of complexity that crosses jurisdictional boundaries. The underlying need for critical decision-making in situations with high risk and pressing uncertainty remains central and consistent (Vitoriano, Montero, & Ruan, 2013).

There are undeniably distinct chapters in the history of Canadian emergency management, over a century of shifting government programs, environmental policies, construction practices and other variables that revise the framework of our profession (McEntire, 2004; Blaikie, Cannon, Ian, & Wisner, 2004; Mietti, 1999). Throughout this history, the traditional and hierarchical command and control model of government has been at the centre of this system, including the 1950s mindset of Civil Defence to the War Measures Act and beyond (Lindsay, 2009).

This historical emphasis on direction, rather than collaboration, and control over coordination, underpins emergency management as a profession, as well as the workplace culture more generally. We often see this represented in ‘siloed’ government programs as well as in our command and control models of response (for example, the Incident Management System). In the modern age of the discipline, we thus retain a legacy of professional competencies and leadership styles that are strongly linked to these systems of management. While functional flexibility and scalability are inherent within these systems, such structures are ultimately built around the more limited concept of direction by a designated individual, over assigned resources. To survive the modern reality of public safety, emergency management will need to develop core competencies beyond concepts of traditional leadership.

Building on foundations of emergency management

The foundations of emergency management has enabled adaptation to some modern challenges. Technological changes, such as increased digital connectivity and availability of information, have had a substantial effect on workplace culture and ways of doing business. We also see a trend towards more female and culturally diverse workplace environments (Jackson, Alberti, & Snipes, 2014) as well as a more genuine and concerted effort towards inclusivity and meaningful dialogue.

In addition, the once-radical ‘whole-of-community’ approach to emergency management, now endorsed nationally by the recently published Emergency Management Strategy for Canada: Toward a Resilient 2030 (Public Safety Canada, 2019). This report was designed in part to fulfill the Government of Canada’s commitment to the Sendai Framework, but such approaches are rooted in far older examples (Young, 1997; FEMA, 2011). While such concepts are far from new, their inclusion in the national strategy also reflects a change in our professional culture in Canada.

More representative organizations will help ensure greater visibility of the needs of currently unrepresented and vulnerable groups, highlight and reduce inequities in the provision of emergency support and invite more inclusive and balanced dialogue (Enarson, 2007; Krüger et al., 2015). However, many studies show the continued presence of barriers to leadership positions for women, visible minorities and members of the LGBTQ2S community in particular (Shreave, 2017; Hewitt, 1995). Therefore, building upon the foundations of our discipline should undoubtedly include specific and deliberate efforts to foster more representative teams, particularly in leadership roles. It should also include professional development that is responsive to our modern paradigm of leadership.

A changing culture of leadership

Across time, as well as social, cultural and political change, the need has remained for decision-makers who can adapt and manage well in times of crisis. But along the way, something else has happened: the workplace context and culture of leadership and decision-making has changed.

Decision-making is now more collaborative, data-driven and integrated than it has ever been. This cultivation of modern approaches to emergency management has been led by a generation of professionals that has managed events from Y2K and 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). Such professionals understand the need for coordination rather than control, which inherently includes the need for a greater range of perspectives in decision-making.

But even now, emergency managers find themselves trapped between the need for modern approaches, and the strengths of traditional hierarchical formats. We continue to see challenges created by our legacy of command and control management styles, the same challenge outlined 20 years ago when David Neal and Brenda Phillips made the argument that “Four decades of systematic research shows that a rigid, bureaucratic command and control approach to emergency management generally leads to an ineffective emergency response” (Neal & Phillips, 1995, p. 1). To develop truly scalable and flexible programs, the profession will need to do more than adapt existing approaches; it will need to evolve beyond them. But how does such evolution occur?

Cultivating leadership

The trends outlined will further increase the growing importance for professionals in emergency management to be coordinators, bridge-builders, negotiators, and mediators. Such change necessitates the deliberate and ongoing development of core leadership qualities and so-called ‘soft’ skills. In this case, soft should not be confused with ‘weak’ or ‘unnecessary’ (Morden, 2016). A prominent modern example of this is the ‘transformation’ leadership model, which posits that effective leadership empowers team members to think independently, critically and creatively and aims to raise their level of autonomy and self-confidence (Gill, 2011; Pedler, Burgoyne, & Boydell, 2004). The importance of investing time and energy in the development of these skills must not be overlooked.

Rather, their importance is equivalent to the foundational principles of emergency management that we all rely on. Regardless of the management structure in question, it is relatively easy to see that such qualities are key to the effectiveness in all pillars of emergency management. It is also becoming clearer that in the modern paradigm of emergency management that leadership qualities cannot be the exclusive purview of the Incident Commander and leadership skills can no longer be viewed as belonging only to traditional decision-makers (Higgs & Dulewicz, 2016). While levels of authority and decision-making power necessarily differ, the operational structure for response would greatly benefit from such skills across all roles at the Emergency Operations Centre and at an incident site.

Without disregarding the lessons of our past, and the many (still current) benefits of the command and control principles, we must cultivate leadership skills and qualities at every level of the organization. To effectively stimulate a more consistent effort toward the development of appropriate skills across the discipline, we must begin with updating the core competencies of the discipline.

Therefore, it is suggested that development of core competencies to fit the modern paradigm of emergency management should begin with management competencies which are vital to all roles and functions:

  • Stress management (self and team)
  • Strategic and critical thinking (anticipation of future challenges, problem-solving, coping with changing situations and environments)
  • Team development (enhance social relations and define roles within teams, as a lead or team member)
  • Interpersonal skills (building morale, maintaining relationships, etc.)
  • Listening (listening to hear, not listening to respond)
  • Decision-making techniques (consensus, democratic, etc.)
  • Empathy (ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes)

While such skills can be taught in the classroom, it is important to recognize that they develop and mature in the workplace. Equally important is to recognize that the modern paradigm of emergency management is more female and culturally diverse than ever. Therefore, the development of skills tailored to the realities of modern Emergency Management will depend at least in part on the ability to create inclusive and diverse workplaces (Young & Pyke, 2018).

While emergency managers strive towards the goals of the Sendai Framework in day-to-day work, such efforts must be emulated in the workforce composition and culture. This brings back concepts such as whole-of-society approaches to emergency management. Implemented in the context of a workplace, this should include efforts to build a workforce with diversity of culture, age, and perspectives – one that is representative of the public.

Such diversity has clear benefits beyond the development of leadership skills. In addition to reinforcing concepts of creativity and self-confidence, diverse workplaces also help increase cultural competence and broaden approaches to problem-solving.

In conclusion, emergency management professionals should not feel limited by the proud legacy of traditional command and control structures, and the leadership qualities they have fostered. To evolve beyond the current paradigm of emergency management, to meet modern and future demands of the discipline, focus should be centered on enhancing and updating core leadership competencies. The continued evolution should foster opportunities for women, people of colour, Indigenous youth and other under-represented groups to become part of the way forward. All these components together will contribute to the development core competencies beyond concepts of traditional leadership.


Works Cited

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I would like to thank Ernest MacGillivray for his generously given time and effort in reviewing this article. His exceptional insight and feedback have helped guide and support my development of this article, which is my first contribution to HazNet.

Sarah Thompson is an Emergency Management professional currently residing in Toronto.
In her current role as Senior Manager, Operations, Relief & Recovery, she leads Canadian Red Cross emergency response programs for Ontario. She has been a strong advocate for and  member of the professional community for over 10 years, which has included leadership roles with the Ontario Association of Emergency Managers (OAEM) and participation in the UN world conference in Disaster Risk Reduction.