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Academics and consultants sometimes write leadership books without staff and constituent groups to demonstrate daily skill sets, emphasizing to readers where they are failing. However, biographies written by great leaders describing how they excelled, failed, and overcame failures provide pragmatic applications of leadership theories. For example, Theodore Roosevelt was a great leader who did some things wrong. Abraham Lincoln was a great leader who faltered in some areas but overcame them in others. Finding a balance between using leadership talents for good, improving skillsets, and making the world better is key to being a good leader.
Transactional vs. Transformational Leadership
Leadership theories typically fall into two main types: transactional and transformational. Transactional leadership is not well suited for leaders looking at the long game. Transformational leadership, which focuses on inspiring others to exceed requirements, is the better style for those in emergency preparedness and response roles. Planning for the long term requires making connections ahead of an incident and coordinating or combining resources across various silos for the public good. Meta-leadership is an example of pragmatically applying transformational leadership to the emergency management and homeland security enterprise.
Emergency management is a unique discipline for leadership roles because emergency managers must look outward and lead in many unexpected situations.
At Harvard University’s National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, Leonard Marcus, Barry Dorn, and Joseph Henderson use the cone-in-the-cube story when discussing meta-leadership to understand others’ perspectives. Imagine a cube with a hole cut on the top and a hole cut on the side. Inside the cube is a pyramid. If one person looks through the hole in the top, they will see a circle. The second person looks through the hole in the side to see a triangle. They will fail if they do not communicate effectively and seek to understand why their views are different.
Emergency managers must lead across various silos to other leaders: the elected sheriff, county clerk, county manager, county commissioners, other fire protection districts, cities and towns, and nonprofit organizations, all of which are a necessary part of the enterprise but ones for which the emergency manager is asking for assistance, not directing. The following meta-leadership concepts apply to many situations:
- Look at yourself first;
- Lead up, down, and across silos;
- Lead outside your circle;
- Bridge with an emphasis to disband silos;
- Expand the role of entities; and
- Align disparate groups with a mission.
Looking inward and using that energy from within helps to feed others and leads to successful leadership skills. The ability to both follow and lead is critical for meta-leadership to work. Consider the common firefighter mantra, “I am not here for me, I am here for us, and we are here for them.” Being willing to be led when someone else has more influence, passion, and knowledge shows a leader’s human side, builds trust, and demonstrates how each person’s abilities are part of the bigger picture.
Many meta-leadership concepts focus on relationship building, which takes time. However, building trust and understanding others’ visions, values, and goals allow the disparate groups to align during an incident. It is easier to be angry at “them” when there is a problem and more difficult to be upset with someone who is known and reachable by phone. This relationship-building can cause stress and derail collaborative cooperation if it does not occur before an incident.
Personal Lessons Learned as a New Deputy Fire Chief and Emergency Manager
At first, meta-leadership seemed depressing and irrelevant for a young deputy fire chief responsible for training and emergency medical services and emergency manager in a rural Nevada county. However, the importance of this concept soon became evident when considering the critical characteristics of these two roles. First, the paramilitary style of the fire service provides a deputy fire chief the ability to produce change, move resources, align funding with priorities, etc. Second, the emergency manager role has much responsibility but little authority across the silos. Telling other agencies what to do while planning special events caused some stumbles, so it was time for a new leadership style.
The COVID-19 pandemic tested the leadership skills of many agencies. In October 2020, testing was widely available, the vaccine rollout was close, there was much distrust of the government due to pandemic response efforts, there was an upcoming election, and that young deputy fire chief had just moved up to become Nevada’s new state emergency manager. So the first task under new management was to rebuild trust within the Nevada Division of Emergency Management and with its partners. That took meta-leadership concepts:
- Showing vulnerability within the agency to allow others to step up and lead the organization;
- Implementing an aggressive travel schedule to reach each county emergency manager and health district to discuss the past, present, and future; and
- Establishing ongoing communication, owning issues, and resolving problems instead of just talking.
The simple act of a state official traveling to a local jurisdiction for a discussion during the pandemic had a positive impact and bridged silos across emergency management, public health, healthcare, local officials, and state officials. Those face-to-face meetings restored relationships that had broken down through the early days of the pandemic. Fortunately, or unfortunately, the pandemic lasted long enough for a reboot. Typical incidents do not provide the luxury of this corrective action time.
Meeting others on their home turf provides a better picture of the situation, a better understanding of others’ organizational goals, and a feel for whether a stakeholder’s words match their culture. For example, one rural county in Nevada appeared to be very much opposed to the vaccination efforts and required a visit. Once onsite, it became apparent that the oppositional voices were political while staff members were already hard at work conducting testing and vaccination clinics throughout the community.
Bridging silos between Nevada, Nevada National Guard, FEMA Region IX, and the CDC Foundation at the Nevada Operations Center in 2021 (Source: Fogerson).
Meta-Leadership’s Role in the Unique World of Emergency Management
Emergency management is a unique discipline when it comes to leadership roles. While some agencies are inwardly focused, emergency managers must look outward and lead in many unexpected situations. Influence and credibility can grow when leaders effectively manage incidents and lead up and across silos. However, as they assist others with leadership decision-making, they must be careful to avoid mission creep.
Internal to an organization, disbanding silos can improve communication and create a happier and more productive work environment. When everyone works toward one goal within an organization, an esprit de corps (feeling of pride and loyalty) is created. The same is not true for external agencies due to various hierarchical rank structures. The incident command system provides one way to communicate across operational networks, but the silos remain to some degree. For example, the sheriff’s office is separate and distinct from the fire department as they have different missions, supervision, funding, etc. within each silo. However, a meta-leader can lead across the silos to ensure that everyone understands the roles and responsibilities each maintains.
Rather than breaking down silos, the barriers to effective communication, coordination, cooperation, and collaboration need to be removed. Through relationship building and being able to lead sometimes and follow other times, leaders create bridges across disparate organizations in various ways. Examples of a servant-leader could include:
· Bringing grant funding or resources to support local operations;
· Showing up at a long-term incident to offer food and rehabilitation supplies; or
· Being inquisitive about others’ operations and seeking to understand how they operate to determine the best way to fit in and assist them.
Meta-leadership is a servant-leadership process. Emergency managers and other leaders should use meta-leadership concepts to establish relationships and expand opportunities to utilize connections proactively. For example, when an incident occurs or an event is planned, these relationships facilitate rapid team building to address the situation. Of course, it is overly optimistic to think that everyone on these teams will know each other, trust one another, and work to their full potential. However, the meta-leadership process will bring groups closer to that goal.