Frontline Leadership

May 17, 2017

According to Peter Drucker, a renowned leader in the development of management education, “Effective leadership is not about making speeches or being liked; leadership is defined by results, not attributes.” This notion of leadership is quite evident in the context of professionals who work in emergency services or other frontline professions. In this realm, the difference between a competent worker and a senior leader takes on a whole new meaning. So, what exactly makes an emergency services professional effective on ground? What are the qualities of a true leader?

Teamwork or Hierarchy?
It’s clear that emergency services professionals need to possess multifaceted skills and abilities in order to provide their invaluable support. Be it fire rescue, emergency medical, policing or other safety and security services, those on the frontline play a pivotal role in society, one that is often rife with extreme pressure and far-reaching consequences.

However, in an environment where teamwork under duress is the hallmark of success, do organizational dynamics and hierarchy exist? Is there really any difference between a leader and a frontline worker? If so, what competencies differentiate a leader from the others?

Chartered Psychologist, Julia Freeborn, believes that higher ranks in the emergency services are likely to differ in terms of the special skills required. For example, some involve more administrative capabilities, while others require quick thinking and action amid chaos.

According to Rod Smith, Superintendent Commander in the Police Force of New South Wales, Australia, “Competence is a critical aspect to any leader and must be across many fields – both technical and managerial. A good leader must have a fine balance of technical knowledge and skill, along with good people skills, emotional intelligence, and the ability to influence people to achieve an outcome.”

Smith points out that a clear rank structure is often imperative in a semi-military organization such as the police force. However, it is not the sole answer. What is far more important, from a leadership perspective, is one’s ability to influence others – to achieve a desired outcome by team work rather than dictating terms.

“Hierarchies are not normally blurred in a police force,” says Smith. “However, style of leadership may vary depending on the situation. For example, an emergency may require directional leadership where rank becomes key, and orders are given for immediate action. Leadership is very tactical in such situations. In a more strategic environment, leadership relies upon vision, communication, and the ability to influence people.” In both situations, though, the leader is highly accountable.

A leader need not have the same level of competence for specific tasks, but must have a far greater understanding of the bigger picture, as well as the competence to manage situations using all available resources. “This requires high-level people skills and strategic vision,” adds Smith.

The Makings of a Leader
In line with Smith’s viewpoints on leadership competencies, researchers believe that qualities such as flexibility, adaptability, self-confidence, and enterprise are imperative for leadership.

In addition, non-technical, or teamwork competencies are also important. These  include communication, management, and decision-making ability. Each category – technical, personal, and non-technical – warrants specific competencies.

Smith’s first-hand experience has shown that leadership quality is difficult to define, although certain traits are critical.  Importantly, it is critical for a leader to have a consistently positive attitude. “Over the years, I have seen leaders who possess different personalities and qualities, but these ones are common to all good leaders,” he says: “integrity, the courage to challenge the status quo, vision, and communication.” He notes that resilience, passion, purpose, self-discipline, and empathy are also seen as essential qualities.   

Julia Freeborn believes that the definition of a leader is a grey area, saying, “Confidence is not always a good indicator of competence; however, the projection of confidence may make it more likely that people will trust the leader.”

Different techniques for measuring leadership qualities include assessing whether a person listens to the concerns of their team, and evaluating the extent to which they share knowledge with others.

The Leadership Effect  
Leadership is the key to managing emergencies successfully. Leaders in any sphere of life, but especially in emergency management, are the glue that hold the force together to effectively battle a crisis. However, leadership is a quality and an approach more than a rank or title. It’s an attitude; and different organizations have varying methods and techniques when it comes to leadership. As John C. Maxwell aptly put it, “Leadership is not about titles, positions, or flow charts. It is about one life influencing another.”

Dr Nicola Davies is a Psychologist and writer with an interest in the psychology behind frontline work.