When fate throws a “sucker punch,” one will do whatever it is habit to do, for all are creatures of habit. During the recent civil unrest in Baltimore, good leaders rose to the task to restore order to the city. However, these leaders are not always the ones in the spotlight or on the evening news.

Improving response efforts requires leadership. For future incidents, some leadership tips could be gleaned from lessons learned based on the recent civil unrest in Baltimore, Maryland, as well as the following definition of the word “leader” from the 2014 book Sam Smith – Star Spangled Hero – The Unsung Patriot who Saved Baltimore and Helped Win the War of 1812:

“A leader is someone who helps someone else, or some group, to get somewhere or do something that they could not have gotten to or done without the help.”

Breaking Down the Definition of “Leader” A leader is someone – not a title, a position, a place in the organizational hierarchy, but a person. Often, people are referred to as “leaders” because they hold a high office or possess high levels of managerial responsibility. However, being a leader does not come automatically with the promotion or with the title of “leader.” The stories of people in high places who are the antithesis of what it means to be a good leader are endless. A good leader leads by strength of his/her character and competency as a leader, not by virtue of the title. During the recent civil unrest in Baltimore, the quality of leadership was made known by actions in time of crisis – regardless of rank or position. For example:

  • Baltimore Police Officer Robert Himes used his special training in riot control to help his unit respond in a highly effective manner in several hazardous situations.

  • Lt. Col. Melissa Hyatt in the Police Command Center executed her duties with calm professionalism, helping to ensure officer safety through speedy deployment.

  • Director Robert Maloney of the Mayor’s Office of Emergency Management and all the heads of city agencies assembled around the clock in the emergency operations center to execute their duties and to keep as much of the city as possible open for business and functioning during the civil unrest.

  • And many more behind-the-scenes examples never made the evening news.

A leader is someone who helps. Simple, yes; easy, no! Sometimes, the so-called “leader” lacks either the skill or the will to help others. Through incompetence or uncooperativeness, these would-be leaders are sometimes unable or unwilling to help. If one cannot help due to lack of ability (“skill”), or will not help for some egocentric or sociocentric reason (“will”), then he or she is not a leader. This person may be a supervisor or manager and may hold a position of leadership, but he or she is not a leader.

A leader is someone who helps someone else, or some group. Being a leader implies that there are followers. Many self-appointed would-be leaders clamor for a following but have no followers. There is a relationship that is established between the leader and the followers that is mutually beneficial. Therefore, warnings should be heeded for self-professed leaders who lack a following.

A leader is someone who helps someone else, or some group, to get somewhere or do something. The object of leadership is to bring about some sort of improved change of state, some sort of desirable outcome, output, problem solved, destination reached, or benefit gained. For example:

  • For Moses and the Children of Israel, it was getting to the Promised Land;

  • For Harriett Tubman, it was following the Drinking Gourd to freedom;

  • For George Washington, it was helping to establish the United States of America;

  • For Lee Iacocca, it was saving Chrysler Motor Company;

  • For a corporate executive, it is return on investment and double digit profitability for the fourth quarter of the fiscal year; and

  • For the people in mission-critical professions, it is successfully accomplishing the mission while maintaining good morale.

Whatever it is, the leader assists by doing something, leading in a special direction, and being the catalyst for, and the cause of, this desirable change for the better. A leader is someone who helps someone else, or some group, to get somewhere or do something that they could not have gotten to or done without the help. If the followers do not need the help, then there is no need for the leader. Sometimes, a leader actually may be an impediment to the followers, but truly good leaders are constantly trying to work themselves out of a job. If the leader does not add value, then there is no reason for them to lead.

Leading by Example – A Sacred Duty The admirable able behavior and acts of personal valor and heroism exhibited by first responders during the recent civil unrest in Baltimore also teach one final lesson. Responders in a leadership capacity are entrusted with a sacred duty: The success of their mission and the safety and well being of others in their charge. Being responsible for oneself is hard enough; being responsible for others – to the point of being in harm’s way to keep others safe from harm – is something that requires a special sense of duty, honor, and commitment. The general population looks to responders as those who are set apart with a salvific mission of selfless purpose. The public expects them to be the “good guys,” but as Spiderman’s Uncle Ben said: “With great power, comes great responsibility.”

The higher the esteem in which a person is held, the more a person also is held to an equally higher standard of deportment and decorum than the average person. People expect more from heroes than the average person is willing (or able) to do (or to be) themselves. For this reason, when a leader does something to violate this sacred trust, there are always disastrous consequences. Those who choose to serve are held to a higher ethical standard because of the nature of their service. Remembering this simple truth made evident in the actions of the response effort leaders in Baltimore help to articulate the role of leadership in building better response efforts in the future.

Mark A. Desimone Sr.

Marc A. DeSimone Sr., Ph.D., is director of training and education in the Mayor’s Office of Emergency Management – City of Baltimore. He is also a collegiate professor in criminal justice at the University of Maryland University College and author of several books on leadership. 

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