Leadership Is a ‘Lifestyle’ Built on Relationships

Garry Briese shares a lifetime of knowledge on building relationships and what leadership really means.

by / October 6, 2011
buddawiggi / Flickr CC buddawiggi / Flickr CC

Garry Briese is a consummate leader who says he is still learning. He is a well-known author and lecturer on leadership and on the future challenges for the public safety, emergency management and homeland security communities. Briese served as the administrator of FEMA Region 8 from 2008-2009 and has more than 36 years of experience in all levels of emergency services including local, state and national.

He shared his vision for leading in the 21st century with Emergency Management.

Question: Why do you think that everything rises or falls on leadership? What in your experience has taught you this?

The more I reflect on my own experiences, both the successes and failures, the more I believe in the importance of both leadership and followership. You cannot have leaders without followers.

While leaders may set the direction and validate the style of leadership that the organization values, the success of organizations is more the result of good followership rather than great leadership alone.

In fact, it is the actions of the followers that determine the success of the leader.

You mention that trust and relationships as basic to what are required for leadership. How do these two intersect with one another?

Interpersonal relationships are most important to success in all organizations today. They are even more important in times of organizational stress, emergencies and disasters. A key part of everyone’s job is to establish relationships with people in organizations who can help you accomplish your mission and who you can help accomplish their mission.

Relationships are, in turn, founded on trust. And the key ingredient in leadership is influence, not command and control or power. You are awarded the privilege of leadership by those who agree to follow.

Establishing relationships is critical in the world of emergency management. People generally recognize this fact but many times don't seem to work on the task to any great degree. Why is that?

It’s pretty simple: If it is not measured, and people are not held accountable, then we are signaling that establishing relationships is not important. I don’t know of any annual performance reviews that have “establishes relationships” as a heavily weighted component.

What is the connection between training, experience and education to competency and reputation? What derails some people in that regard?

The answer to your question requires a willingness for introspection and self-examination. Credentials, certification and classes do not translate into respect and the ability to execute.

We usually don’t have a problem identifying critical defining moments from our past. But preparing for those moments in the future is significantly more difficult but essential.

Moments of leadership and reputation often come from moments of uncertainty. These leadership moments disproportionately impact perceptions of competency and reputation.

If we’re not aware of these potential leadership moments, we risk having unintended and often negative qualities attributed to ourselves and our organizations. Once established, negative reputations are very difficult to change.

What is the interplay between individual and organizational reputations? What is the connection between the two?

Personal and organizational reputations are established over time and can be enhanced or damaged by a single defining moment. We all know organizations that are either respected or not respected as a result of perception of lack of competency or interpersonal challenges.

That organizational perception usually comes from the actions of individuals over time. We say something like, “It’s a good organization, but has some not-so-good people. They are just not easy to work with, either day-to-day or in emergencies.”

How do stereotypes impact one's ability to move forward and forge new relationships?

Stereotyping is one of the worst forms of discrimination. When we engage in assigning sweeping characteristics to people or organizations, we are exposing our own prejudices and biases. But it is possible to overcome stereotypes by sustained performance competency and relationships!

What role does networking in general play in relationships? How does networking add value in our interconnected world?

Earlier in my career I expected that my training, education and accomplishments would ensure success. I resented people who moved forward with what I perceived as fewer qualifications but better “connections.”

I hated the phrase, “It’s all about who you know.”

But as I have matured and deepened my understanding about the world, I came to realize the truth in that statement. It really is all about who you know and who knows you.

Networking and building relationships is a key part of everyone’s success. People will help you because they want to help you. You will be successful if people like and respect you, both as a person and as a professional in your job.

When talking about communications you say, "Everything we need to be successful comes from other people." How do you see communications impacting your ability to be successful and achieve success via others?

We are all working in areas where lines of authority aren’t clear or don’t exist and we can’t force people to work with us. Good interpersonal skills, especially listening and questioning, are the foundations for building relationships.

Trust and influence are two aspects of interpersonal relationships that come to the fore when you are trying to forge a new collaborative working environment. How is influence exerted in today's world?

The nuances of “influence” are a compilation of all the skills of leadership and followership. Contrary to the image of the decisive leader making major decisions, most decisions are actually made quite collaboratively; even those in emergency and disaster situations.

Even when the person in a leadership position makes the final decision, many other people had a role in formulating it, often by consensus. It is the power of influence that garners the support of peers, subordinates and superiors in today’s world

Although we may have an electronic “relationship” with someone, everyone can relate to the sense of completeness that comes from meeting that person face-to-face for the first time, and the connection is usually solidified with a physical handshake.

If there is someone who aspires to be a leader at some point in his/her career, what advice would you give on becoming prepared to lead?

Study people and study yourself and how you measure up to the current concepts of leadership and followership. Be ready to make mistakes, learn and move on. For example, when I have the opportunity to take staff or interns to meetings, I ask them to study the people and group dynamics.

Listen and watch. Watch the interactions of the attendees, note who speaks, who listens, who speaks too much, and who, when they speak, facilitates others to decisions. Try to identify the influencers in the group.

After the meeting, we debrief together and talk about the leaders and followers, the “flow” of the meeting and the eventual decision (or non-decision) and why the group came to that decision. Each time I ask them what they learned and what could have been done better.

Excellence in leadership requires constant self-examination, and that is very hard. Leadership is not something we “do,” it’s not an action, it’s a lifestyle

Lastly, you have spoken about symbolism and image when it comes to leadership. How do those impact us in a world that seems to operate based more on perception than fact?

Often images and symbolism are more important than the actual message, especially since we can no longer control the message. The images and the symbolism they convey have the proven ability to become more important than even the most detailed explanation or speech.

We can’t promise that our systems in emergency management and homeland security will perform perfectly each time they are challenged, but we can instill confidence with our words and the images we convey.

The combination of well-chosen words, coupled with strong images, is hugely effective. We have to be constantly aware that the images we create must reflect the seriousness of the message being delivered.

People in crisis situations need and want to be reassured. We cannot deny ourselves the benefit of the power of symbolism since how we communicate tells others if we can be trusted.

Eric Holdeman Contributing Writer

Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.

He can be reached by emailTwitter and Google+.