Training & Education

How You Can Lead Without Authority (Opinion)

The key for emergency management professionals is gaining and maintaining relationships.

It doesn’t take a person entering the field of emergency management long to figure out that when it comes to responding to and recovering from disasters, we don’t have much, if any, authority. This then is our lot in life. Lots of responsibility, no authority.

How then do you successfully lead without authority? Here’s how you can lead, but not command.

First and foremost is understanding the limits of your authority. Most emergency managers would prefer to report directly to the chief executive, mayor, county commission or governor. This allows for more personal contact with the organization’s senior leadership and also puts you in a peer-to-peer relationship with other senior members of a cabinet or department. 

In reality, few emergency managers have a position that gives them the influence that comes from being directly associated with senior leadership. At best, we can get a letter signed by the chief executive directing people and departments to participate in planning or exercises. 

The key for emergency management professionals is gaining and maintaining relationships. What you want to accomplish via your relationships is an ongoing process of engagement in activities that they find beneficial to them. Note that I said “them” and not “you.” 

Get partners involved with disaster exercises. Events like exercises have a way of opening eyes as to the ramifications that come from disasters. Here is a list of other things to do to develop and promote your ability to lead:

  • Lead by example — have your actions match your words. This is critical if you are going to be able to build partnerships and coalitions. It all boils down to having trust be a bedrock foundation that you can build on.
  • Focus on individual and organizational relationships. You don’t build trust between organizations. You build trust between individuals, which then brings along the organizational trust.
  • Be transparent about your intentions. By sharing as much information as possible with others, they begin to understand what you are trying to accomplish. This builds trust.
  • Communicate clearly both verbally and in writing. An old quote I really like goes something like this, “It is not good enough to communicate so that you are understood. You must communicate in a manner that you are not misunderstood.”
  • Study up on marketing skills — you are, after all, selling ideas. We are always selling something, be it disaster preparedness, the value of mitigation or the concept of disaster resilience. 
  • Build partnerships with individuals and organizations. We cannot function alone and in a vacuum. Our real influence (authority) comes from working in concert with others. 
  • Learn to find common ground and negotiate win-win solutions. If you want it “your way” and are unwilling to compromise, then you will have a lonely and frustrating existence. Doing things in concert with others will always make your program stronger. Give up some control in order to become more effective.

There is no “chain of command’ in our profession. Professional emergency managers who are successful at what they do learn to accomplish much more than they ever could have done by commanding others to do their will. 

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+.

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