In a previous article for Asia Pacific Fire, I commented on the need for post-event learning that was nuanced and aimed at achieving long term change rather than satisfying the needs of the 24 hour news cycle. This was in specific reference to a recent event in Australia (Tathra Bushfires) where there was significant criticism over the ability of the emergency services to work together in the face of a fast moving bushfire event. In the aftermath of the Tathra Bushfires, an inquiry was announced aimed at providing a rapid response to capture learning from the event.
Within three months, the inquiry reported back presenting a range of recommendations including; the need for improved coordination between agencies, reduction of red tape and the creation of a centralised call and dispatch centre led by a non-uniformed public servant. In many ways, the lessons emanating from this disaster have echoed previous criticisms of responses where there is a belief that it could have been handled better. The recommendations presented have also pointed to the need for deep and sustained change to the way that organisations approach these events i.e. changes in command structures and ongoing relationships. Within the recommendations, there is also an implicit discussion of the type of leadership that is needed during the heat of an event to facilitate a successful outcome. This focus on leadership is something that pervades across all natural and manmade disaster events. It has become a touch point in the heavily scrutinised analysis that follows from major crises. Given this scrutiny, it is an opportune time to consider approaches to leadership which address the multiple challenges at hand.
The leadership puzzle
Leadership in many ways seems like a simple thing to implement in a crisis. Commander in Chief makes the right decisions, responders implement and the disaster comes to an end with a successful resolution (think Thai Cave rescue). In the case of the Thai Cave rescue, the Governor of Chiang Rai was acclaimed for navigating through uncertainty, coordinating an international response effort and achieving the rescue of the missing children. Examples of successful leadership in the face of a crisis are however rarer and often less memorable than those of failure. We only need to think about events such as Hurricane Katrina, the Japanese Tsunami and ensuing nuclear disaster to see how a disaster event can quickly evolve into a crisis. These aforementioned events were not only characterised by being large scale and difficult to manage but also marred by the perception of a failed leadership response. Indeed, in the case of Hurricane Katrina the apparent lack of leadership in the aftermath to the hurricane itself and inability to resolve rescue and recovery as it plummeted into chaos are remembered as much as the storm and flooding that occurred.
Whilst leadership appears to follow a clear and simple formula, it is much more a puzzle which requires unravelling. If we look at modern leadership in the face of a disaster, there are a number of key considerations: the alibility to coalesce agencies and individuals who are at the heart of the response, understanding public expectations and operating with political astuteness and savviness.
Accountability starts at the top
One of the key challenges facing leaders during a crisis situation is the ability to coalesce the component organisations and individuals into a coherent and coordinated group able to act quickly and confront the challenges which arise. There is a tension in the ability of an individual leader to be in a position to directly influence all levels of a response (particularly in a large multi-faceted event where there may be tens if not hundreds of responders). Yet, accountability for an event response is traced back to senior leadership. As a result, setting the tone for how organisations coordinate and operate during peace time represents a strong precursor of how they may function during a crisis event itself. Whilst the key leadership figure cannot impact on every action, they can provide the foundation and weigh the odds in their favour. Increasingly key leaders need to act as both commander and strategist to shape their organisations and provide the best chance for success when placed under pressure.
Public expectation and delivery under fire
Whilst once natural disasters were seen as beyond human control, it is now known that the preparation and response to these events are controllable. There are strong expectations around the ability to be prepared to face any eventuality that may occur. Paradoxically over the past decade, we have seen decreasing public confidence in government. In the realm of disaster response, emergency service agencies are amongst some of our most trusted entities and there is an imperative to retain this trust. There is a need for leadership to understand the expectations that the public hold and how these can be met in the face of a disaster event. Foremost amongst these is the understanding that the public is not interested in the ‘turf wars’ or internal disputes that may exist within the emergency response eco-system. The second is that there is a need to clearly articulate to the public what is possible during an emergency response. This should be coupled with discussions around community resilience and what the community can reasonably be expected to provide for itself as a disaster is unfolding. Finally, there is a strong need for leadership to be seen as in control of an event, whilst at the same time maintaining empathy for those who are being most heavily impacted. This requires an ability to tap in the prevailing sentiment which may exist and acknowledge the human impact of events in a meaningful way.
Keeping ahead of the game
The final consideration I’d like to highlight in terms of the leadership puzzle is political astuteness and the ability to stay ahead of the game. Where in the past our key leaders in emergency management have needed a strong technical skill set and experience base, there is now a need to embed political astuteness within their tool kits. Navigating through crisis responses requires the ability to align individuals, agencies and meet public demands whilst managing the response to a crisis event. These events are not occurring in isolation but rather occur within increasingly politicised environments. Emergency response agency leaders are not immune from this. Indeed, it is paramount that they are able to engage and keep ahead of the game by understanding the prevailing environment and the actions that they need to take. This is highly evident in the whole of government engagement which occurs in modern emergency management. Working across government requires coordination across political, bureaucratic and operational response agencies. There needs to be a clear focus on the intersection between these groups and an emphasis on understanding how the political and bureaucratic tiers operate to ensure that emergency agencies are ahead of the curve and don’t run into headwinds as a result of being caught unaware.
We have many lessons which can be learned from the past regarding leading emergency service organisations. We also have new challenges and imperatives which must be factored in when looking and solving the leadership puzzle. Leadership in the face of current events and in the expectation of future events needs to be prepared not only for the technical challenges that exist but in walking the tightrope of internal management challenges, public expectation and highly politicised environments.
For more information, go to www.routledge.com/developmentstudies/posts/13170