Meta-leadership: Re-defining Emergency Management

By |2019-07-10T23:26:42+00:00July 10th, 2019|0 Comments

At the professional level, the critical tasks leading to, during and following a disaster involve coordinating multiorganizational, intergovernmental and intersectoral response and recovery operations. In the early 70’s wildfires in California brought the implementation of incident command systems. Since then, the landscape has changed considerably at all levels of government. It has, likewise, required changes from emergency management professionals. 

For over four decades I have had the privilege of working as an emergency manager in this great country. In every one of my jobs, leadership has been the common denominator for success. Leadership is what leaves a jurisdiction more resilient over time.

The three qualities of leadership

Early in my career, I learned to lead, not by authority, but through influence. I found that proper leadership hinges on three qualities: strength, unity, and peace.

A strong leader is accurate; confident in their actions and intentions. They have a clear awareness of when to take action, when to step in and when to defer to others. They know their own abilities and how to make use of them. Above all, they know what they can do to help a situation.

A leader who embodies unity values collaboration. They are adaptive and aware of the value of a team. They lead as an individual but appreciate everyone’s contribution to a goal. Instead of drawing a line between leader and worker, they unite everyone to a common goal. They know what they can do to help the group.

A peaceful leader values co-ordination and co-operation. They are the voice that calms the crowd and settles disputes. They show confident decision making on the surface but always give consideration to all sides. They know what they can do for each individual on their team.

A good leader holds in them a balance of these three skills. This philosophy of strength, unity and peace is one that all emergency managers should carry with them.

Building resilience

The ultimate goal of any comprehensive emergency management program is to build a resilient community. The road to resilience is through relationships and relationships are built through leadership.

Leadership is best gained by influence and not authority. Real relationships grow from trust, respect, understanding of the community and honesty, no matter the circumstances. Respect must be given and a leader who shows respect earns respect. As emergency managers, it is beneficial for us to show respect to each other and all stakeholders. 

Organizational change is a gradual, evolutionary process, offering solutions to problems in the long run. Leaders, however, prompt the sort of resilient and flexible organizational response required for quick and immediate change. Meaning they must be agile and adaptive in the short term.

How do people deal with difficult events that change their lives? Typically, with a flood of strong emotions and a sense of uncertainty. Yet, over time, people generally adapt well, relying on their resilience, an ongoing process that requires time and effort and engages people in taking a number of steps.

Warren Edwards, the director of the Community and Regional Resilience Institute (CARRI) said, “a community will be resilient when it can bring together the people, processes, and technology that helps them anticipate risk and build an executable plan.” Good leadership simply facilitates this process.


Generally, resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress. It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences. John Buchan said, “The task of leadership is not to put greatness into people, but to elicit it, for the greatness is there already!” 

Research has shown that resilience is ordinary, not extraordinary. People commonly demonstrate resilience. One example is the response of many Americans’ efforts to rebuild their lives after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Being resilient does not mean that a person doesn’t experience difficulty or distress. Emotional pain and sadness are common in people who have suffered major adversity or trauma in their lives. In fact, the road to resilience will likely bring considerable emotional distress. 

Resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. It involves behaviors, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone.

I have been able to participate in many meta-leadership initiatives around the country and witness the benefits. 

Described by the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative: “The Meta-Leadership framework and practice method … is designed to provide individuals with tools that are conceptually and practically rigorous so that they are better equipped to act and direct others in emergency situations.1 

They go on to explain, “Meta-leadership is currently being used by leaders in the fields of homeland security, emergency preparedness and response, and public health in the public, private, and non-profit sectors.”

Finding use in homeland security, public health and emergency response, to name a few applications, meta-leadership is a conceptually rigorous and field-tested framework built to foster innovation, anticipate change, and address dynamic, complex and risk-laden challenges. It helps close the gap between a great idea and great execution. 

The NPLI describes meta-leaders as people who “think and perform differently. By taking a holistic view, they intentionally link and leverage the efforts of the whole community to galvanize a valuable connectivity that achieves unity of purpose and effort.”

Meta-leadership requires those who practice it to go beyond their job descriptions and effectively lead down to their team, up to their boss, across to their peers and beyond their organization to other stakeholders.

One example of this need for meta-leadership and coordination is the deployment and dispensing of medications by the Strategic National Stockpile during an emergency. The goal in such an operation is rapid treatment and protection of ill people. To assure that the right people get the right medications as efficiently as possible. the operation must be seamless. Each person involved must know their roles and responsibilities; organizational logistics must be in place and ready to go; the necessary resources must be appropriate to the emergency and there must be a constant and reliable flow of information to continuously assess and adjust decision making and action in response to changing contingencies. In such an event, meta-leaders are required for both preparation and deployment.

Meta–Leadership allows different organizations to collaborate on an initiative even while maintaining leadership in a single organization. It builds upon strength, unity and peace, the three key leadership skills and helps foster resilience in all parties involved in emergency management. 


As we have witnessed from countless disasters, from hurricanes Hugo, Katrina and Sandy to terrorist events such as 9/11 and the Boston Marathon or even outbreaks like Ebola and Zika, emergency managers must be prepared to make their communities whole again. Effective emergency preparedness and response requires leadership and effective leadership requires coordination and communication between many agencies and sectors. 

Thinking and operating beyond their immediate scope of authority, meta-leaders provide guidance, direction and momentum across organizational lines that develop into a shared course of action and a common purpose between people and agencies involved in emergency management. 

Meta-leaders are able to creatively and effectively leverage system assets, information, and capacities. It is safe to say that effective meta-leadership, proper application of the three leadership skills and a focus on building community resilience are each effective instruments for organizational change and successful emergency management.


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About the Author:

Ellis Stanley has 44+ years of Emergency Management Experience, public and private sector. He is currently Managing Partner of Ellis Stanley Partners, LLC. And serves and Chairman of the Global Board of the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM).

He has served on the Board of Directors of Greater Los Angeles Red Cross Chapter and the Atlanta Red Cross Chapter. He served as Chair of the Emergency Management Accreditation Program and the Board of Directors of Operation Hope and the Disaster Recovery Institute International. He was the inaugural Chair of the Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) Program. Ellis serves as an adjunct professor at American University teaching Senior Crisis Management and at Harvard University teaching Meta-Leadership.

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