Leadership During Troubled Times: Lessons for the COVID-19 Crisis

Public safety has once again been thrust onto the front lines of a serious threat to the safety and security of our country: the COVID-19 pandemic. As public safety agencies across the country adapt response models, PPE usage, staffing assignments and patient treatment procedures, we must not forget the need to adapt leadership strategies. More than ever, public safety personnel are looking to their leadership for direction and support.

We are all grappling to stay informed and educated while trying to remain calm and not overreact. The media is full of stories illustrating “disaster brain”—illogical thinking in the face of threats we don’t understand—such as the tendency to hoard toilet paper and other vital supplies or conversely, to deny the threat exists at all and engage in high-risk behavior.

Public safety personnel must cope with these behavioral extremes—in ourselves and the people we are called to help—while also taking on the stress of protecting our families at home. For many firefighters, EMT/paramedics and law enforcement officers, the simple act of coming home at the end of the shift creates the very real concern that they are putting their family at risk. Instead of responders being isolated from the stresses the average person faces during the COVID-19 crisis, the stresses are compounded and will add to an already dynamic and challenging environment.

Be honest and candid about the challenges and what the plan is to successfully navigate the current storm.

It is times like this when strong leadership is critical so the public safety organization can continue to provide the services the community needs. Public safety personnel must be able to look to their leadership to develop a plan and explain the role each member will play in the plan.

The Captain of the Ship Decides the Course

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a lot of uncertainty—questions about everything from individual and family safety, to job security and whether we have enough financial and material resources to survive.

These personal stresses will only be magnified when firefighters, EMT/paramedics and law enforcement officers report to work. To carry out their daily tasks, members of the organization will be required to try to reduce exposure potential to the COVID-19 disease. Each day, news headlines, social media stories and virtually everything we see or read is filled with COVID-19 information—some accurate, but much of dubious or speculative nature—which only leads to the uncertainty and stress everyone faces.

During difficult times, strong direction from the leadership of an organization can help reduce stress and provide clear direction about what members can and should be doing while at work and home.

The absence of strong leadership during these challenging events is like a ship trying to navigate in the fog without the captain on the bridge. In the captain’s absence, the crew will follow the last order given until it’s no longer valid. If the captain still isn’t present, the crew will do the best they can, but it may not be what the captain expects and may not be in the best interest of the ship and its crew.

The military describes uncertainty during combat conditions as “the fog of war.” The fog of war is a German term referring to the uncertainty that often accompanies military operations. The “fog” can occur at any level, from command to the frontlines. The more complex or unknown the enemy, the greater the risk that personnel will experience this confusion, become overwhelmed and lose the ability to continue to fight.

The absence of strong leadership during these challenging events is like a ship trying to navigate in the fog without the captain on the bridge.

During times of crisis, public safety personnel are at risk of experiencing the fog of war, too. Individual employees may become confused about the specific actions they’re supposed to take. Leaders run the risk of losing perspective on the critical steps needed to manage the incident.

Crisis management is also no place for egos. Events such as the COVID-19 pandemic require leaders who empower and trust others to carry out critical tasks. Leaders must also be adept at receiving and evaluating feedback on the effectiveness of their decisions. Crises are opportunities to see individuals excel at new tasks—and to quickly replace those who fail to perform with others who will.

So, as a leader, what can you do to effectively steer the ship?

Establish the Battle Plan

Before any effective military goes to war, battle plans are developed that reflect experience from previous battles. In addition to the considerations of previous experience, intelligence is gathered about the potential enemy with the hope of identifying a weakness that can be exploited to win the battle and ultimately the war. It’s important to note this plan is the foundation of what actions will be taken when a battle ensues.

In public safety, our “battle plans” are generally organizational policies and procedures. These usually include specific information as well as general guidelines to inform members of the organization what is expected of them. Some organizations only focus on plans for emergency operations and do not have plans for the non-emergency aspects of what they do. It’s important to consider that due to the infrequency of emergency operations, having plans for non-emergency functions will keep everyone in tune with the role such plans play—and make personnel more likely to reference plans during emergency operations.

Many organizations have a “battle plan” for communicable/infectious diseases and that’s a good start. I have heard many people say that COVID-19 created the need to “dust off” these plans. Hopefully your agency has kept the plan up to date and regularly reviewed it, but if not, it’s better to start late than to forge ahead without a plan. Note: Lexipol’s Coronavirus Learning & Policy Center provides free policies, interim directives and procedural guidance for public safety agencies and local government.

Set the Course

Large-scale events such as COVID-19; natural disasters such as tornados, floods, earthquakes, fires; and active shooter incidents challenge even the most seasoned and experienced leaders. Many times, the biggest challenges come from the fact that “we’ve never done this before” and so we lack the previous experience to draw from. After-action reports from these incidents stress the need for tactical flexibility, quick response to feedback on the effectiveness of tactics being used, and innovative approaches to problems.

As the leader of the organization or as a member of the leadership team, the rest of your organization is looking to you for direction. As you “set the course” for your organization, remember some of these top leadership qualities:

  • Honesty and integrity – Communicate truth. If there is information you don’t know, be honest about it. Guessing or providing false information is worse than saying, “I don’t know.”
  • Confidence – Follow your battle plans, be flexible to alter the course as needed, and share your confidence that the organization will get through this.
  • Ability to inspire – Set the example for others to follow. People are much more likely to follow a leader who works with them.
  • Commitment and passion – Be passionate about the mission and be willing to get your hands dirty too.
  • Good communication – Effective communications are critical to achieving your incident response goals.
  • Decisiveness – Your ability to quickly and effectively make decisions has a profound impact on those involved.
  • Accountability – Everyone on the team is accountable for what they are doing, starting with the leader.
  • Delegation and empowerment – Empower those involved and delegate tasks to them. Ask them for feedback and adjust based on this information.
  • Creativity and innovation – Try new approaches, evaluate quickly and disseminate tactics that work, discarding those that don’t. Don’t be afraid to act because “We’ve never done that before.”
  • Empathy – Understand where the team is and what they are going through. Do what you can to lessen the negative impacts and give them tools to help them to succeed.

Calm During the Storm

COVID-19 is creating enormous challenges for public safety personnel, on the job and off. Strong leadership at every level of the organization can bring calm to the storm. Be honest and candid about the challenges and what the plan is to successfully navigate the current crisis. The direction and support you provide your personnel can minimize the overall impact and promote peace of mind. Providing a clear understanding of what you expect and their role in the big picture will also help personnel do their jobs effectively and with confidence until the crisis has passed.

And make no mistake about it—this too will pass.

Additional Resources

Bruce Bjorge

BRUCE BJORGE's fire service career includes more than 38 years of experience in command and training positions with career, combination, volunteer and military fire agencies. Currently, he is a Battalion Chief with the Western Taney County Fire District in Branson, Mo., and has also served as a company officer and Assistant Chief of Training. Bruce is also the Director for Fire Sales at Lexipol. He formerly was the Aircraft Rescue Fire Fighting (ARFF) Specialist for the University of Missouri Fire & Rescue Training Institute where he managed their Mobile ARFF and other live-fire training programs. He has also served as a Training Developer for Lexipol. He holds Training Officer certification from the International Society of Fire Service Instructors and is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Training Program Management course. Bruce has been an active instructor and evaluator for the past 28 years and is a regular presenter at state, regional and national conferences and training events.

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