Are today’s emergency managers (EMs) taught to think strategically? Are EMs mentally equipped to address the broad scope of complexities in the contemporary threat environment that we now face? Or, are the current approaches to managing crisis antiquated, leaving the preparedness and response frameworks focused on legacy mindsets, outdated methods, and learned behaviors of predecessors? These are only a few of the questions that surface as preparation and response efforts are all too often viewed as insufficient. This article is the first of a four-part series of other forthcoming articles exploring the strategic leadership framework in emergency management. In this article, we will conduct an initial examination of the emergency management paradigm to provide a high-level, yet informative view of the current state of strategic leadership in emergency management.
The decades-long legacy approaches to managing crisis have seen little to no change and are now called into question. The questions themselves have arisen as many of the contemporary crisis events have surpassed the scope of the tactical and operational approaches seen pre-9/11. In his article “Strategic Leadership: A Critical Skill in Short Supply,” Lucien Canton highlights this contemporary challenge and explains the necessity to close the strategic-thinking gap in emergency management. Canton (2018) further explains that crisis management must now be viewed from a strategic lens to the change necessary to manage the crises we now face. Through strategic approaches, emergency managers would better align the five emergency management mission areas (i.e., prevention, protection, mitigation, response, and recovery) to the operational environment. The alignment of the mission areas needed to safeguard personnel and property will serve to dynamically codify efforts aimed to achieve National Preparedness Goals. The strategic alignment will also demonstrate an increased organizational value through their ability to align crisis management activities well-beyond the deliberate actions and inward-focused perspectives often utilized by today’s emergency management practitioners. Meaning, emergency managers must now consider emergent and outward perspectives to manage the crises now faced strategically. That is, emergency managers must now seek to think of what Rhodes (2011) explains as the four strategic-thinking domains (e.g., emergent strategy, deliberate strategy, outward focus, and inward focus). What’s more, in their examination of the domains, emergency managers thought processes must consider the application of each of the domains in both planning and the conduct of managing crises to enhance the strategic planning efforts of each mission area to properly manage crisis.
According to Rhodes (2011), strategic leaders must be able to make informed decisions based on their assessment of the given environmental factors examined across the four domains of strategic thinking. The four domains are attributes of the strategic-thinker, and the coinciding attributes are characteristic behaviors learned over time, honed through training, education, and mastered through experience (Krupp & Howland, 2013). Rhodes (2011) explains that the emergent strategy domain places emphasis on the second and third-order impact of current influences on future outcomes. The deliberate strategy domain places emphasis on the immediate objective necessary required, whereas the outward-focused domain encompasses the long-term landscape constraints on the organization. Lastly, the inwardly focused domain involves a leader’s keen sense of the organization’s core competencies and capabilities necessary to achieve the desired outcome (Rhodes, 2011). As my own research highlights, emergency managers fall short in two of the four domains, which are the outward and emergent domains. As a result of these shortcomings, emergency managers are seemingly not able to strategically plan for unanticipated large scale incidents outside the scope of previously experienced incidents. Consequently, the limitation here leaves a knowledge gap in the necessary thought processes of the planning framework and actions required to manage crises efficiently.
Closing the Gap
Answers are somewhat provided, and limited actions are taken to close the strategic-thinking knowledge gap are ongoing effectively, yet, no solution is readily apparent to suggest an actual closure of the gap. Nonetheless, limited information continuously surfaces to address the shortfall; however, to no avail. Plainly, emergency managers now face many more complexities in the contemporary era of a greater magnitude from much more than natural disasters often managed their predecessors. Complexities in the modern era now include far-reaching terrorist activities to threats posed by adversaries using the cyber domain as their main or secondary avenue of approach. For these reasons, emergency managers require more sophisticated grooming to think well-beyond tactical and operational approaches with a greater view of the big picture to properly manage a crisis.
Notably, emergency management approaches and skills have not seen any significant change, yet, much of the conversation about such changes speak to the contrary. As indicated in other articles, such as Chris Walker’s “The Strategic Leader, security consultant,” there have been steps taken to address this change in the paradigm toward strategic-thinking (Walker, 2018). However, the changes have proven limited at best, as strategy development remains a concern. That is, while the educational emphasis is placed on educating executive emergency management leaders to think strategically, such efforts are limited in their outcomes. Such limitations have been attributed to executive leaders receiving skills-based training to arrive at quick answers instead of being educated in a manner that provides them with lasting knowledge of what questions ought to be asked in an effort to solve the complex problems.
Emergency managers must now have a wide array of understanding well-beyond the tactical and operational responses of yesterday. As examined by Canton (2019), referencing Arjen Boin, Paul’ t Hart, Eric Stern, and Bengt Sundelius (2016), The Politics of Crisis Management: Public Leadership under Pressure. Emergency managers, like most other public officials managing crises, must have an array of understanding for strategic leadership tasks that include, but not limited to, sense-making, meaning-making, and accounting for actions taken pre- and post-crisis. Each of these leadership tasks, and others, directly correlate to an emergency manager’s ability to manage a crisis effectively. What’s more, these leadership tasks create a window for emergency managers to think in emergent and an outward-focused mindset. Given Canton’s (2019) examination, emergency managers of this era require developmental programs that require them to think and function more strategically. However, arguably, the evolution of emergency management professional development suffers because of the lack of such rigorous academic programs, academic structures, and course offerings to educate emergency management personnel. Such arguments, nonetheless, may assist in elucidating the emergency management community’s current shortfall—a professional development model for emergency managers of this contemporary era and the future. Although many studies provide context for why educational foundations are essential, and further development is required, the arguments presented provide little recourse for evaluation for those currently in the field. Meaning, emerging emergency managers likely need education in a paradigm that also focuses on strategic approaches.
Although emergency management has experienced significant growth in educational focus and a greater emphasis on professionalization in the past three decades, it, continues to lack the integrated programs needed to ensure emergency managers are receiving the proper educational foundations. That is the necessary educational foundations to develop strategic-minded professionals who are capable of managing the complex and uncertain environment faced today. The emphasis of emergency management must go far-beyond the tactical and operational approaches of years’ past.
In summary, specific knowledge is only one element in the emergency management community’s advancement toward professionalization. as advanced educational foundations have become increasingly necessary for emergency managers to manage the complexities of the contemporary era. Emergency managers must take into consideration, the four-domains of strategic-thinking (i.e., emergent strategy, deliberate strategy, outward focus, and inward focus) to effectively manage complex contemporary crises.
In the forthcoming articles, an examination of the emergent strategy domain is explored to delve into some of the second and third-order effects of not having an emergent mindset while planning for crisis mitigation. And, the following articles will, as es explained, will examine the remaining three strategic-thinking domains.
BIO: Rynele M. Mardis, Ph.D., is a public service senior leader with more than 25 years of service to the nation, and an adjunct professor of Public Safety Leadership studies for various colleges and universities. He holds a bachelor’s in justice science from the University of Alabama at Birmingham; a master’s in strategic intelligence from the National Intelligence University, a master’s in business and organizational security management from Webster University, and a Ph.D. in Public Safety Leadership specializing in emergency management from Capella University. His military assignments span all levels of leadership from tactical to strategic-levels, both domestic and international.
Boin, A.,’t Hart, P., Stern, E., and Sundelius, B. (2017), The Politics of Crisis Management: Public Leadership under Pressure (2nd ed.). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Canton, L. (2018, September). Strategic Leadership: A Critical Skill in Short Supply. Emergency Management, Retrieved from http://www.govtech.com/em/emergency-blogs/managing-crisis/strategic-leadership-a-critical-skill-in-short-supply.html
Canton, L. (2019, September). Strategic Crisis Management: Do Emergency Managers Have a Role? Retrieved from https://www.govtech.com/em/emergency-blogs/managing-crisis/strategic-crisis-management-do-emergency-managers-have-a-role.html
Rhodes, M. (2011, September). What is a strategic leader? A person of imagination, The Free Management Library. Retrieved from http://managementhelp.org/
Walker, C. (2018, February). The Strategic Leader, Security Management.
Retrieved from https://www.asisonline.org/security-management-magazine/articles/2018/02/the-strategic-leader/
Areas: Emergency Management