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How do we define leadership?

Video describing different theories of leadership
Leadership in all its forms is an essential part of managing risk critical situations. Leadership in this context is almost entirely an element of effective decision-making. Effective decision-making leads to trust within your followers, and that enables the team to work together to resolve the emergency. It’s a fundamental part of the role of the incident leader. It’s almost impossible to summarise the various and many theories of leadership, particularly in the field of emergency management. But if I was going to give my own personal experience, I would say that, in essence, the leader engenders trust within their followers through the quality of their decision-making, through their own personal skills and attributes and a fair degree of personal integrity and moral courage.
For example, in the 1980s, a young fire officer newly in post was trying to establish his leadership on a team that consisted of people who were the same age as him or even older. They attended a fire in a tower block and the young commander decided to command the incident from the ground floor instead of the floor below the fire, which was the usual practice at the time. As a result of this tactic, a successful outcome, the fire was extinguished safely and effectively, but the ongoing, the knock-on effect was that the young man’s leadership of that team was strengthened.
In this section we investigate some of the definitions used to describe types of leadership and how this affects relationships with subordinates.
The most important role of the leader is to take on his shoulders the burden of ambiguity inherent in difficult situations. That accomplished, his subordinates have criteria and can turn to implementation (Kissinger 1982: 531).
These words, spoken over 35 years ago, accurately portray the key function of leadership in the emergency incident context. They paint an accurate picture of the incredibly complex legal, political and regulatory environment within which today’s emergency managers operate.
Let us consider this in the wider context of leadership studies.
There are many definitions of leadership:
A relationship through which one person influences the behaviour or actions of other people (Mullins 2002: 904).
The only definition of a leader is someone who has followers (Drucker 1996: 54).
Leadership is a function of knowing yourself, having a vision that is well communicated, building trust among colleagues, and taking effective action to realise your own leadership potential (Bennis 1989: 7).
The true measure of leadership is influence – nothing more, nothing less (Maxwell 2007: 11).
In his book A Very Short Introduction to Leadership, Keith Grint (2010) describes how in 2003 there were 14,139 books relating to leadership for sale on Amazon UK, and in 2009 there were 53,121.
Leadership and the study of leaders is big business. And yet it is still hard to focus down on a single definition.
In some ways, leadership can be defined by results, by the degree of followership, by popularity, by political influence; in fact, there are literally hundreds of ways to view it.
For us, though, we could view leadership through the lens of followership and non-technical skills. Does the leader ensure that the performance standards of our emergency response teams are achieved (transactional leadership)? Does the leader inspire followers to perform (transformational leadership)? Does the leader have effective awareness of the situation and can they make the right decision in the most appropriate way?
These are the crucial issues facing the leadership of any incident. And we say leadership rather than the leader, as the successful resolution of an incident relies upon the collective leadership both of and by a number of agencies and actors.
Let us see which of these factors is most important to you as an aspiring emergency manager.

Your task

Research transactional and transformational leadership.
In your opinion, which is the best model for emergency risk managers?


Bennis, W. G. (1989) ‘Managing the Dream: Leadership in the 21st Century’. Journal of Organizational Change Management 2 (1), 6-10
Drucker, P. (1996) ‘Your Leadership is Unique’. Christianity Today International/Leadership Journal 17 (4), 54
Grint, K. (2010) A Very Short Introduction to Leadership. Oxford: OUP
Kissinger, H. (1982) Years of Upheavals. Boston-Toronto: Little, Brown, and Company
Maxwell, J. C. (2007) The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You. rev. edn. Nashville, T.N.: Thomas Nelson
Mullins, L. J. (2002) Management and Organisational Behaviour. 6th edn. United Kingdom: Financial Times Publishing
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Emergency Management: Risk, Incidents and Leadership

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