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Leadership and Trust in Emergency Management

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Christine Springer
September 16, 2016

In today’s environment, emergency managers get things done through team leadership that follows in rhythm. And, they get the right things done without constant prodding or course correction. To make it happen, team members must trust each other and their leader. It may not be easy to accomplish, but it is critical based on interviews I conducted with 520 emergency managers at the 2015 conference of the International Association of Emergency Managers. A whopping 84 percent of respondents mentioned those aspects most often.


With regard to leadership, respondents identified six critical traits for successful emergency managers. They need to function as moralist, jurist, teacher, steward, philosopher and action-oriented thinker.

  • As a moralist, emergency managers maintain a strong sense of values, have respect for doing things right and hold the moral high ground—all so they and their teams know it is important to do the right thing, not simply do things right.
  • As a jurist, they make decisions based on the available information fairly and without personal vested interest. That said, their decisions are always personal, meaning they take full responsibility for what they decide.
  • As a teacher, they transfer knowledge and guide and mentor team members and subordinates using defined goals and high expectations for achieving them.
  • As a steward, they serve the organizational mission, the people, the team and their position with humility and generosity.
  • As a philosopher, they continue to learn about knowledge, truth and the nature and meaning of life so they can find the right course of action even during difficult times. They are patient, think things through and assure themselves and others that their actions—or inactions—will be meaningful.
  • As an action-oriented thinker, they embrace adversity and turn fear into courage and action by creating a positive, forward looking environment. They are present, keeping a team moving forward and letting it know what lies ahead and how things can change for the better.

Good leaders know how to follow others when the situation calls for it. Often referred to as followership, it is just as important as leading from the top. Being the right kind of leader is critical to getting committed and engaged followers. When possible, leaders should listen to the team’s ideas and reserve giving direct orders for situations when they must do so. Letting the team members decide can give everyone a greater sense of control over their jobs, the outcome and ultimately the process itself.


Managers build trust into decision-making differently. The common themes that the respondents mentioned most often were time and attention, respect, unbreakable values, sacrifice and technical proficiency. Specifically:

  • Time and attention are the ability to manage time for the team and respect the time of others.
  • Respect is being genuine and flexible regarding team members and never resorting to the use of fear to motivate others.
  • Unbreakable values mean when values are tested, managers maintain them even as mistakes are made, and values-based mistakes are dealt with swiftly and not allowed to happen again.
  • Sacrifice is the willingness to get involved personally in addressing a crisis. It provokes strong emotions in others so people tend to respond in positive ways when managers sacrifice as much as or more than what is expected of their teams.
  • Technical proficiency means being referred to as a great operator due to the mastery of trade and leadership skills so people trust the manager’s performance.

When emergency managers set up the right conditions for a team to thrive, it sometimes results in a harder job with a better outcome. To do so, they share information both up and down the chain of command and make their intentions clear. In the emergency management world, unanticipated situations and opportunities arise, requiring the team to exercise its own initiative. When managers are clear about what winning looks like, they are able to use their own discretion and make decisions that support the mission.

An effective expression of the manager’s intent must contain four parts: purpose, key tasks and end state, appropriate guidance and priorities. The purpose is a clear and concise statement of what the team must do to succeed and achieve the desired end state for the environment in which it operates. It gives the team enough context to exercise initiative when the unanticipated occurs. The manager’s intent is not a restatement of the mission; it provides a broader purpose, one that helps put things in a clearer context. It is written in the manager’s own words. It presents the bigger picture so the team gets a better sense of what it is doing and why. The better the team understands the mission and intent, the better equipped and empowered it is to execute effectively. But, this only works in a values-based organization where individuals can be trusted to do the right thing.

In the final analysis, it is not the critic that counts. It is the manager who is present and engaged. Cultivating the brand of a true leader, building trust and responsibility among the team and setting the conditions for it and the community at risk to thrive can—and often will—result in great rewards.

Author: Christine Gibbs Springer is director of the executive master’s degree in crisis and emergency management at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. She can be reached at [email protected].

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