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Decision-making in the emergency services

Video interview with a member of the emergency services discussing decision making.
On our course so far, we’ve examined many leadership models and today we’re going to look at the relationship between leadership, followership and decision-making. Now some of the models that help us do this are the Hershey-Blanchard Situational Leadership model and the Tannenbaum and Schmidt Continuum. Now in these models, we look at the relationship between the leader and the follower and the time that’s available to make key decisions. On one end of the scale, the leader makes the decision, the leader decides that there is not enough time, or the risk is too critical, and they have to actually decide; it’s a very autocratic way of doing things.
At the other end of the scale, is a far more democratic process where the leader encourages the followers to take part in the decision-making process, even really taking the decisions for themselves. Both styles have their merits. The key thing is that the situation itself will determine the approach that the leader takes. Now I have with me today, Dean Harris from the West Midlands Fire Rescue Service, the Technical Rescue Station, he’s also a member of the International Search and Rescue Station. We talked about the Situational Leadership model and the way that that applies in the relationship between the leader and the followers, the team leader and the team followers. What experience do you have of using that model?
It is something that I am familiar with and it’s something which is common within the working environment, certainly within the Emergency Services because the style of leadership really is dependent on the situation and the context one finds oneself in. For example, one day you might find yourself at a major incident, major disaster or fire where there’s time and risk criticality involved. The next day you might find yourself sat down with your team developing a fire prevention initiative for the local school. Now the different type of leadership approach is to resolve both examples are going to be different if you want to come out with the ultimate result.
So, one assumes that depending on the situation, and the skills within your team, sometimes you may make an autocratic decision, like an instant decision based upon the fact that there may not be enough time, or the risk is too high, but other times you may be more inclusive with the team and allow their ideas to come to the fore, they may even make the collective decision together. Yes, there are a number of factors which will determine the appropriate style of leadership, subject to the situation and context.
Two of those factors might be risk and urgency, other factors might be the capability within the team, the desire within the team to actually achieve the outcome, so the leader really would float between a range of different styles, telling might be used for example if the followers had a low level of skill and motivation or if there was a high level of risk or high level of urgency.
And obviously the decision that the leader takes will depend upon their own skills and experience, but would you say that the role of the followers in understanding the pressures that the leader is under, are also important? Yes, that’s part of their own situational awareness. Situational awareness is key to all of us to understand the context and the appropriate form of leadership. So you might have a highly skilled and highly motivated team but because of the time and risk pressure, that leader might decide to take an autocratic approach to resolve the incident.
So, you have a lot of experience of attending disasters all over the world with the International Search and Rescue Team, do you have any examples of when you’ve used the Situational Leadership model? The Situational Leadership Model is often used as part of the disaster response, as a leadership style in that the leader might have to vary their approach through telling, consulting and ultimately participating. An example that comes to mind was during the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir when as a small search and rescue team, we were tasked with the search of a small primary school which had collapsed.
About an hour and a half into the operation, the team was approached by a local Imam and approximately 20 male followers and the Imam requested that the focus of the rescue efforts should be moved to a local Mosque that had collapsed during morning prayers. So here was a very complex situation, both the tasking and the needs of my individual team and also managing the request from a very influential local person, so situational awareness was absolutely key in this situation, and part of that situational awareness was the cultural awareness to be able to manage this situation, to get the optimum outcome.
So, in terms of leadership style, it was a case of moving up and down the continuum, using the range of tell, telling and consulting and also delegating and participating styles to be able to manage both aspects. One interesting factor was that you were in a position where you didn’t have a primacy over the locals so you couldn’t order the individual to do anything, and this was a very influential and powerful man within the local community, so that required delicate influencing skills with push and pull, balancing local arguments and searching ultimately for a positive outcome.
So, managing your own team and the way that they felt about the request was important, managing the response to assist the request for assistance elsewhere, to take a singular style would never be the best option under those circumstances. And that’s a very interesting case study, particularly when you think that most people believe that the emergency services, the uniformed services, the military especially, the decision-making is a very autocratic process, you know, the leader says jump and everybody jumps. That’s not your view I assume? No, it’s not, not in my experience. I think there is often a perception that within a uniformed organisation, military, police, fire, it’s very orders-driven, it’s very autocratic.
That certainly isn’t the case, it really is about achieving maximum adaptability and flexibility at the point of delivery. So, I think every workforce, whether uniformed or not, really does want an enabled workforce, individuals that can make decisions when it’s most appropriate to do it. So, it’s about the use of a variety of different leadership styles to achieve the maximum, the optimum outcome. So would you say that even in the military world, for example, peoples’ capabilities as a team and as individuals, come together with all of their command systems, communications systems and structures to provide that flexibility at the point of delivery? In my experience it does work that way. Teams are aware of their own capabilities, their own limitations.
They are also very much aware of the context and situation they find themselves in and a mixture of those different factors will influence the appropriate leadership style. Well thank you very much for sharing your experiences. As we can see, Situational Leadership Model, the Tannenbaum and Schmidt Continuum, are very important parts of the emergency response world. We see here that the leader makes the decision as to which style of leadership they will employ, depending upon their own perception of the situation and the time that’s available for them to make that decision.
But what we also see is that the position of the follower is equally important, that they understand that the whole system is designed to provide maximum flexibility and adaptability to allow them to do their jobs. But they also understand that the pressures that the leader is under and the reasons why they need to move up and down on that continuum, and it’s the whole process, the holistic view that goes to make the overall leadership of emergency response effective.
Now that you have analysed some of the different styles of leadership, which is best suited to the emergency situation?
In this video Paul Amos interviews Dean Harris of the West Midlands Fire and Rescue Service and a member of the International Search and Rescue team.
They discuss the relationship between team leaders and their followers as well as the wider relationship with members of the public.
Leadership style is very much dependent on both the situation and the context in which a team finds itself. A good leader is one who is able to adjust their style dependent on the situation.
The style employed depends upon multiple factors including:
  • time
  • team skill
  • risk present
The situational awareness of the other team members is just as important, as they should understand the need for such decision-making styles.

Your task

What was interesting or surprised you about the perspective described in the interview?
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Emergency Management: Risk, Incidents and Leadership

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