Saturday, June 7, 2008

Leadership in Emergency Management

The 11th Annual EMI Higher Education conference brought together members form the academic world with practitioners from the emergency management world. Presentations and conversations were often thought-provoking and lively as the journey towards developing curriculums that meet the needs of the community continues.

A common theme occurred throughout the conference concerned leadership, specifically how to educate leaders in the emergency management community. Many scholars from leading colleges and universities are struggling to define leadership through a scientific model. The discussions often flip back and forth between the researchers claiming there is no scientifically defined model and the practitioners quoting civil war scholars who studied the great battles. In my opinion, both arguments have merit yet miss something more fundamental. From a purely academic standpoint, pursuing an empirical model of leadership through scientific research and analysis is important to the body of knowledge about leadership. Even without a scientific model though leaders are still produced somehow. To the practitioners who like to quote famous generals from the past, they too are missing an important part of the discussion. It isn’t just about the personality and ability of their favorite general that made them a successful leader. There are many generals who have the same type of personality and ability as say General Lee yet few achieve his stature.

Leaders are a unique combination of ability, personality and experience. Rarely are examples of leadership focused on junior people, inevitably the exampled cited focuses on the leader at the apogee of their career. In my opinion that is because leaders are formed through their experience. The military is able to produce leaders fairly consistently because of the ability to move up and coming leaders through a variety of experiences. Emergency management faces a rather daunting task in comparison, as there are few opportunities for leadership growth.

Most county emergency management agencies have one or fewer full-time staff. How then can experience be gained through a journey of different experiences? I don’t know if there is any single answer to this question. County directors near cities may be able to go through a loaned-executive type system in order to gain experience. Rural counties may lack the funding and ability to loan their directors out to gain experience.

The need for opportunities to experience leadership is why I hesitate with the normal answer; volunteer. Volunteers may or may not have the opportunity to practice leadership skills. Directing a group on filling and stacking sandbags doesn’t require the same level of leadership skills as getting a community to plan for a disaster response. Organizing an awareness campaign isn’t the same leadership skill as getting elected officials to support your request for funding. To be sure, the more experience a future leader has to practice being a leader the better but it needs to be a coordinated experience, not random.

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