Emergency Managers Without Borders

Emergency managers exercise ‘meta-leadership,’ which links the efforts of different organizations to share guidance and direction.

by Eric Holdeman / September 10, 2010
David Fine/FEMA

I dislike the term “manager.” You manage budgets, programs and schedules. If you’re a leader, you lead people. You can make numbers on a spreadsheet do just about anything you want, but leadership isn’t as simple. The people factor drastically complicates things.

Emergency managers are leaders. It makes no difference if you’re just a one-person shop — you’re still a leader when you’re an emergency manager.

Most of the time, people think of leaders as being the top box in an organization chart with staff arrayed in boxes below the leader. To be an effective emergency manager, your influence must extend beyond the boundaries of your organization chart. If you support regional approaches to emergency management, you’ll instantly recognize the challenges of forging relationships and teams that are different in function, style and history.

There’s a relatively new term being used called “meta-leadership,” which I think describes emergency managers’ work. Wikipedia defines it as: “An overarching leadership framework for strategically linking the efforts of different organizations or organizational units to provide guidance, direction and momentum across organizational lines that develop into a shared course of action and commonality of purpose among people and agencies that are doing what may appear to be very different work.”

While typical leadership brings a level of authority over the people one supervises, meta-leaders have no direct authority. To accomplish anything, the leader is required to develop circumstances to influence others to act in a certain way.

I’m a strong believer in building regional emergency management efforts that extend beyond the typical organizational and geographical boundaries that compose the modern geopolitical scene. Disasters don’t respect these artificial, man-made boundaries.
In most cases, the person with the job title and job description of emergency manager must lead these efforts. Few others, if any, will be called upon to pull together the regional partnerships and coalitions of the future.

This requires an extremely high level of leadership. You can’t impose your will on anyone. In my experience, joint planning is the best way to get people together. It provides a forum for discussing the tough issues of how resources are allocated, where the regional priorities might be and who determines them.

The low-hanging fruit of regional planning is to at least achieve regional situational awareness during disasters by finding ways to communicate better and share information between jurisdictions. Private-sector organizations are always hungry for situational awareness. If you can’t get other government jurisdictions and agencies to play regional ball, invite nongovernmental organizations like power and transportation companies to the planning table.

You can see by the examples I’ve given that meta-leadership isn’t dictatorial in nature. Rather, it is invitational in its very operational context. The concept of the emergency manager as a coordinator and facilitator fits the meta-leadership role to a T. Since the meta-leader has no official charge, you don’t have to wait for someone to appoint you as regional meta-leader. You assume the meta-leader mantle simply by your actions.

You can begin now. Look at maps hanging in your emergency operations center. If they end at your jurisdictional boundary, you can start your journey at becoming a meta-leader by changing those maps to include your neighboring jurisdictions. Then you will have started on your journey of thinking beyond your single agency, city, county or state. It can be your first step in becoming a meta-leader.

[Photo courtesy of David Fine/FEMA.]