for the Article Out Loud
consultants sometimes write leadership books without staff and constituent groups to demonstrate daily
skill sets, emphasizing to readers where they are failing. However, biographies written by great leaders
describing how they excelled, failed, and overcame failures provide pragmatic applications of leadership
theories. For example, Theodore Roosevelt was a great leader who did some things wrong. Abraham Lincoln
was a great leader who faltered in some areas but overcame them in others. Finding a balance between
using leadership talents for good, improving skillsets, and making the world better is key to being a
Transactional vs. Transformational Leadership
Leadership theories typically fall into two main types: transactional and transformational.
Transactional leadership is not well suited for leaders looking at the long game. Transformational
leadership, which focuses on inspiring others to exceed requirements, is the better style for those in
emergency preparedness and response roles. Planning for the long term requires making connections ahead
of an incident and coordinating or combining resources across various silos for the public good. Meta-leadership
is an example of pragmatically applying transformational leadership to the emergency management and
homeland security enterprise.
Emergency management is a unique discipline for leadership roles because emergency managers
must look outward and lead in many unexpected situations.
At Harvard University’s National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, Leonard Marcus, Barry
Dorn, and Joseph Henderson use the cone-in-the-cube
story when discussing meta-leadership to understand others’ perspectives. Imagine a cube with a hole cut
on the top and a hole cut on the side. Inside the cube is a pyramid. If one person looks through the
hole in the top, they will see a circle. The second person looks through the hole in the side to see a
triangle. They will fail if they do not communicate effectively and seek to understand why their views
Emergency managers must lead across various silos to other leaders: the elected sheriff, county
clerk, county manager, county commissioners, other fire protection districts, cities and towns, and
nonprofit organizations, all of which are a necessary part of the enterprise but ones for which the
emergency manager is asking for assistance, not directing. The following meta-leadership concepts apply
to many situations:
- Look at yourself first;
- Lead up, down, and across silos;
- Lead outside your circle;
- Bridge with an emphasis to disband silos;
- Expand the role of entities; and
- Align disparate groups with a mission.
Looking inward and using that energy from within helps to feed others and leads to successful
leadership skills. The ability to both follow and lead is critical for meta-leadership to work. Consider
the common firefighter mantra, “I am not here for me, I am here for us, and we are here for them.” Being
willing to be led when someone else has more influence, passion, and knowledge shows a leader’s human
side, builds trust, and demonstrates how each person’s abilities are part of the bigger picture.
Many meta-leadership concepts focus on relationship building, which takes time. However,
building trust and understanding others’ visions, values, and goals allow the disparate groups to align
during an incident. It is easier to be angry at “them” when there is a problem and more difficult to be
upset with someone who is known and reachable by phone. This relationship-building can cause stress and
derail collaborative cooperation if it does not occur before an incident.
Personal Lessons Learned as a New Deputy Fire Chief and Emergency Manager
At first, meta-leadership seemed depressing and irrelevant for a young deputy fire chief
responsible for training and emergency medical services and emergency manager in a rural Nevada county.
However, the importance of this concept soon became evident when considering the critical
characteristics of these two roles. First, the paramilitary style of the fire service provides a deputy
fire chief the ability to produce change, move resources, align funding with priorities, etc. Second,
the emergency manager role has much responsibility but little authority across the silos. Telling other
agencies what to do while planning special events caused some stumbles, so it was time for a new
The COVID-19 pandemic tested the leadership skills of many agencies. In October 2020, testing
was widely available, the vaccine rollout was close, there was much distrust of the government due to
pandemic response efforts, there was an upcoming election, and that young deputy fire chief had just
moved up to become Nevada’s new state emergency manager. So the first task under new management was to
rebuild trust within the Nevada Division of Emergency Management and with its partners. That took
- Showing vulnerability within the agency to allow others to step up and lead the organization;
- Implementing an aggressive travel schedule to reach each county emergency manager and health
district to discuss the past, present, and future; and
- Establishing ongoing communication, owning issues, and resolving problems instead of just
The simple act of a state official traveling to a local jurisdiction for a discussion during
the pandemic had a positive impact and bridged silos across emergency management, public health,
healthcare, local officials, and state officials. Those face-to-face meetings restored relationships
that had broken down through the early days of the pandemic. Fortunately, or unfortunately, the pandemic
lasted long enough for a reboot. Typical incidents do not provide the luxury of this corrective action
Meeting others on their home turf provides a better picture of the situation, a better
understanding of others’ organizational goals, and a feel for whether a stakeholder’s words match their
culture. For example, one rural county in Nevada appeared to be very much opposed to the vaccination
efforts and required a visit. Once onsite, it became apparent that the oppositional voices were
political while staff members were already hard at work conducting testing and vaccination clinics
throughout the community.
Bridging silos between Nevada, Nevada National Guard, FEMA Region IX, and the CDC Foundation at
the Nevada Operations Center in 2021 (Source: Fogerson).
Meta-Leadership’s Role in the Unique World of Emergency Management
Emergency management is a unique discipline when it comes to leadership roles. While some
agencies are inwardly focused, emergency managers must look outward and lead in many unexpected
situations. Influence and credibility can grow when leaders effectively manage incidents and lead up and
across silos. However, as they assist others with leadership decision-making, they must be careful to
avoid mission creep.
Internal to an organization, disbanding silos can improve communication and create a happier
and more productive work environment. When everyone works toward one goal within an organization, an
esprit de corps (feeling of pride and loyalty) is created. The same is not true for
external agencies due to various hierarchical rank structures. The incident command system provides one
way to communicate across operational networks, but the silos remain to some degree. For example, the
sheriff’s office is separate and distinct from the fire department as they have different missions,
supervision, funding, etc. within each silo. However, a meta-leader can lead across the silos to ensure
that everyone understands the roles and responsibilities each maintains.
Rather than breaking down silos, the barriers to effective communication, coordination,
cooperation, and collaboration need to be removed. Through relationship building and being able to lead
sometimes and follow other times, leaders create bridges across disparate organizations in various ways.
Examples of a servant-leader could include:
· Bringing grant funding or
resources to support local operations;
· Showing up at a long-term
incident to offer food and rehabilitation supplies; or
· Being inquisitive about others’
operations and seeking to understand how they operate to determine the best way to fit in and assist
Meta-leadership is a servant-leadership process. Emergency managers and other leaders should
use meta-leadership concepts to establish relationships and expand opportunities to utilize connections
proactively. For example, when an incident occurs or an event is planned, these relationships facilitate
rapid team building to address the situation. Of course, it is overly optimistic to think that everyone
on these teams will know each other, trust one another, and work to their full potential. However, the
meta-leadership process will bring groups closer to that goal.
Catherine L. Feinman, M.A., joined Domestic Preparedness in January 2010. She has more than 30 years of publishing experience and currently serves as Editor of the Domestic Preparedness Journal, www.DomesticPreparedness.com, and the DPJ Weekly Brief, and works with writers and other contributors to build and create new content that is relevant to the emergency preparedness, response, and recovery communities. She received a bachelor’s degree in international business from University of Maryland, College Park, and a master’s degree in emergency and disaster management from American Military University.