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Characteristics of Effective Emergency Managers (Part 1)

Is it possible to define what makes an emergency manager effective? A survey of existing research shows nine common characteristics found in successful emergency managers.

Mirta Mendez walks through the debris at the Seabreeze trailer park along the Overseas Highway in the Florida Keys on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017. In December 2016, Florida's Division of Emergency Management warned that the state was poorly prepared for a major disaster.
What makes an emergency manager effective? It’s not an easy question to answer and there are multiple studies that consider core competencies and skills. In a recent paper in the Journal of Emergency Management, titled The Essential Skill Set of a Resilient Emergency Manager, researchers Jenna Tyler and Abdul-Akee Sadiq introduce the concept of “resilient” emergency management and identify seven characteristics that define resilience.

However, what I found most interesting is their review of the current state of knowledge. After reviewing papers relating to core competencies, skill sets, and recommended curricula, Tyler and Sadiq selected six representative studies and noted that nine common characteristics were present to some degree in each study. These characteristics are:

  1. Technical and substantive knowledge — emergency managers must have in-depth knowledge of key emergency concepts and theories.
  2. Professionalism — This refers not only to appropriate training and education but includes the ability to function well under stress.
  3. Interpersonal relations — Strong interpersonal skills and the ability to gain the trust of compatriots is one of the essential characteristics of an emergency manager and are critical to success.
  4. Management — The dichotomy for emergency managers, as I’ve written elsewhere, is that the demands of managing a program and the demands placed on one in a crisis frequently require different skill sets. The common theme, though, is the need to adhere to management principles.
  5. Leadership — Studies, such as those by Kouzes and Posner, argue that leaders must be forward thinking and visionary and must be able to translate this into a common vision with shared objectives.
  6. Legal and ethical behavior — This implies not only knowledge of laws but the ability to adhere to ethical and moral principles.
  7. Problem solving — Problem solving is not only about seeking solutions, it also speaks to judgment. Janice and Mann’s studies on decision making have demonstrated the numerous barriers to effective decision making. Emergency managers must be able to overcome these barriers and exhibit sound judgment.
  8. Communications — While emergency managers may not always be the main spokesperson in a crisis, we spend a lot of time in front of cameras and on social media. Emergency managers must be effective communicators both in dealing with the public and in dealing internally with other response organizations.
  9. Cultural and environmental awareness — Community values have a profound influence on not only how we respond but whether we can implement effective mitigation and recovery. An understanding of the cultural, racial, and ethnic composition of the community is essential for an effective emergency manager.
These nine themes certainly seem to represent a consensus in research that goes as far back as Thomas Drabek’s seminal study, The Professional Emergency Manager (1987) and seem comprehensive. However, Tyler and Sadiq believe that by using resilience as lens, it is possible to identify several other characteristics that could be used to define effective emergency managers. Those seven characteristics will be subject of my next blog.

Lucien Canton is a management consultant specializing in helping managers lead better in crisis. He has been in turn a professional soldier, a private security manager, and an emergency manager before becoming a consultant.