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Leadership and decision-making

Emergency management expert Paul Amos shows Tannenbaum & Schmidt’s continuum placing leaders on a decision-making scale from autocratic to democratic.
As aspiring disaster managers, you will study many theories of leadership and decision making. One such theory is the Tannenbaum Schmidt continuum. This explains the relationship between the leader and the followers. On the one hand, we have autocratic and on the other hand we have democratic. The autocratic, the leader, takes all the decisions with very little involvement from the followers and at the other end, democratic, the followers take the collective decision. And where we sit on that continuum is determined by the situation at the time. A good example of using the tandem bound Schmidt to help us to explain a scenario, which in essence is another form of situational leadership.
An incident occurred during an earthquake where an urban search and rescue team had entered a collapsed building to rescue a ten-year-old child who was severely trapped by her legs. Now, this team had fully invested itself in rescuing this child and the way that these teams work is very much a collective decision-making process. They bring together the skills and knowledge that they all have collectively under the guidance of the leader.
But at this incident, the leader was aware of a deteriorating security situation outside of the incident and the time came for them to make a decision of whether they were going to stay and try and rescue the child, or potentially risk being attacked and losing everything, and therefore, not being available for further rescue. Now, the leader collected the team together and they collectively made the decision that they were going to leave. That meant they preserved their capability to carry on carrying out rescue but of course, the impact was the child died.
Now, the knock-on effect of this was that everal members of the team experienced post-traumatic stress and one of the reasons was because they felt responsible for this child, that they collectively took responsibility for making that decision. And the interesting thing was that the leader said afterwards that he wished that he had been more autocratic and that he had made the decision alone, because then his team could have blamed him for the child dying and not absorbed that stress for themselves. It’s just another way of showing the limitations of these models. They’re very, very helpful to help us understand decision making and how leadership styles can change, but there are definitely limitations to what they can do.
In this section you will see how the different styles of leadership affect the decision-making process.
There are many ways to define leadership styles. One of these is the Tannenbaum and Schmidt continuum of leadership (Tannenbaum and Schmidt 1973)
This continuum places leaders on a scale from autocratic at one extreme, where decisions are made with little input from followers, to the democratic at the other, where decisions are made collectively.

Your task

Put your chosen leader from earlier in the week on a Tannenbaum and Schmidt scale with 1 at the autocratic and 10 at the democratic extreme.
Describe why you think they should be placed there.

Further reading

If you are interested in studying this topic further you may find the article below interesting.
Cohen-Hatton, S. R., Butler, P. C., and Honey, R. C. (2015) ‘An Investigation of Operational Decision Making in Situ Incident Command in the U.K. Fire and Rescue Service’. Human Factors 57 (5)


Tannenbaum, R., and Schmidt, W. H. (1973) ‘How to Choose a Leadership Pattern’. Harvard Business Review 51 (5), 162-180
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Emergency Management: Risk, Incidents and Leadership

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