What does it mean to be a crisis leader? How can you learn to respond when the stakes are high and every decision you make carries significant consequences? These are questions that confront leaders and emergency managers every day, at every level.
Whether it’s local fire evacuations, dealing with statewide homelessness, the onset of an unprecedented pandemic, or the early arrival of hurricane season, crisis leaders and emergency managers across the country confront these situations head-on. We've worked with hundreds of professionals in emergency management, and below is a collection of their best 10 tips on how to be an effective leader before, during, and after a crisis.
- Take care of yourself. There’s a reason this is first, as this is often the first thing leaders ignore during a crisis. Crises demand every ounce of attention. Distinguishing what is important is a learnable skill. It's also a draining one during a time when you need every bit of your focus and energy. Finding time to rest, even if it’s just going home for a shower, is vital for your sanity and your ability to sustain effort throughout the crisis. Recognizing when you are running low on fuel is a counter-intuitive skill needed to bring your best to critical situations. Put another way, stress makes you stupid, and that can be dangerous during a crisis response.
- Establish a support system. Many leaders spoke to the necessity of a support system, ideally established before any crisis. For some, it was their spouse or family. For others, it was their Chief of Staff or their team. But many pointed to a support group as a source of ideas, of stress-testing positions, or serving as a grounding force to return to in crucial moments.
- Build trust. This is one of the central skills of emergency management and crisis leadership. Ideally, building trust happens on the “blue sky” days to serve as an unshakeable foundation during “grey skies.” That can happen from empowering people, stress-testing training with simulations, and from the repeated relationship building that happens with intentionally getting to know your people. A repeated theme across emergency management professionals was to “build community where you are," both within your internal teams and in the external relationships with the people served by emergency response professionals.
- Empower those around you. Unfortunately, emergency managers cannot be everywhere at once. As such, centralizing knowledge and command during a crisis, while efficient, also carries risk. As the frequency, complexity, and intensity of crises grow, decentralizing command to those closest to the problem can increase the speed of responses. Ideally, this is a decision made deliberately, after a proven track record of success during “blue sky” operations. People often can and will step up if given the opportunity. Be deliberate in creating those opportunities for team members and stakeholders to build their capacity and to create a foundation of trust and readiness for the next emergency.
- Devote time to strategy and prioritization. The worst time to decide what is most important to protect is in the middle of a crisis. Emergency management professionals can work with stakeholders, including elected officials, to determine what is most valuable and important to the success and health of the community before an emergency. With these critical structures in mind, we can work backwards to figure out what might be needed (plans, resources, etc.) to ensure that which is most valuable remains protected or faces minimal risk. By laying out what is valuable, what is needed to protect it, and where we are currently, we identify the strategic gaps that must be overcome if we are to turn what we say we want to do into a concrete and practical plan.
- Strengthen local capacity. Under any crisis, the best responses coordinate federal, state, and local capacity and resources to deliver a coordinated and comprehensive response. However, this is often easier said than done. Federal support may also surge on during the crisis, but quickly move on in the aftermath. As a part of any response, emergency management professionals should aim to bring together local community groups to share lessons learned and to actively cultivate relationships with local leaders and groups to build capacity for future responses.
- Work to know who isn’t in the room. Part of team dynamics is also knowing who is not represented. In emergency management, often the most adversely impacted communities are groups that have historically lacked representation and decision-making power. As a leader, it is crucial to remember that. Leaders and emergency management professionals need to test and question the cognitive, historical, and institutional biases that may lead to the continued exclusion of those groups. It may be considering the diversity of the team and the perspectives that may be missing. It may be thinking about what places can handle an influx of those with accessibility needs. It may be contemplating how the hospitality sector is particularly exposed to disasters because many of its workers are living in low-income, high-risk areas. It is not always possible to have every voice in every room, but 1) we can work to improve that, and 2) we can at least be more aware of what perspectives we are lacking so we know what work and what outreach we still need to do.
- Rely on data. The use of data can make decisions more straightforward. By narrowing it down to a powerful, data-driven metric, all subsequent decisions could be viewed through this lens and whether they were likely to improve or worsen hospitalization in the city. Data, carefully chosen and stress-tested, can therefore become a clarifying force in times of great uncertainty.
- Red Team your thinking and your plans. While the use of strategic planning is vital to emergency management, it is also imperfect. Instead of seeing this as a weakness, use different strategies as opportunities to stress-test the plans and capabilities of the local emergency management system. Using different tabletops, scenario exercises, simulations, and war games can break the system at its weakest points in the hopes of rebuilding with something stronger. This continues to be an underutilized resource within emergency management, and working with external partners like the military, the private sector, or others may create the types of partnerships and local capacities necessary to successfully handle the next emergency.
- Remember the mission. In a recent interview with Pete Gaynor, former Acting FEMA Administrator and Acting Secretary of Homeland Security, and a current senior advisor with McChrystal Group, he pointed out the importance of ensuring everyone understands the mission and priorities. "And then right behind that is making sure you take care of the people that work for you because, without the people, there is no mission.” Emergency management professionals often face the choice of competing priorities and competing resources. In fact, that may always be the choice in front of them. Remembering what the mission is to the people you serve — and the people needed to execute can help clarify the actions needed right now — in this moment.