Leadership During Crisis Response
By John P. Jarvis, Ph.D., and Brittany N. Murray, Ph.D.
Law enforcement officials make sacrifices every day to keep us safe, and, in this mission, many find themselves responding to major crisis incidents. Whether it is an active shooter, a bomb threat, a natural disaster, or a hostage rescue attempt, law enforcement is charged with not only addressing these potentially life-threatening incidents but also responding as effectively and efficiently as possible.
Many law enforcement officials have stressed the need to learn more from one another—by sharing their stories, obstacles, and best practices, as well as what they have learned through these responses—as a means of preparing for future threats. This article seeks to aid this effort through interviews with those who have responded to various crises.
What constitutes a crisis? Of course, opinions may vary. The proposed working definition used in this study is “an unexpected event of consequence that overwhelms the resources and staff of a particular jurisdiction and requires outside assistance.”
Crisis incidents—which require an effectively managed response—are, unfortunately, all-too frequent these days. Consciousness of these threats remains at the forefront of law enforcement leaders’ minds, impacting how they approach critical incidents and handle relations with both media outlets and local political figures. However, these responders also must continually analyze critical incidents to learn from these tragedies so they can stay ahead of crises and act effectively when disaster strikes.
A May 2016 article in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin titled “Leadership During Crisis Response: Challenges and Evolving Research” identified five areas related to responding to this demand.1
- Training in leadership during crises
- Lines of authority and command-decision responsibility
- Effectiveness of on-scene leadership
- Best practices from after-action report processes
- Positive outcomes related to on-scene command
This list of topics helped guide this follow-up piece, which reports findings from an FBI effort to examine leadership during such crisis incidents. The results of this effort not only were responsive to these areas but also revealed richer information pertaining to other areas of crisis leadership, response, and preparation not originally proposed.
Does leading during critical incidents differ from that in day-to-day office operations? What constitutes an effective response to large-scale incidents? These represent, in part, questions recently examined during interviews with 75 law enforcement officials. In each case, the respondent recounted and reflected upon strategies for leading through crises.
Dr. Jarvis serves as academic dean of the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia.
Dr. Murray is a research fellow in the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit-5 in Quantico, Virginia.
These discussions helped identify and confirm current best practices, as well as new approaches, for executing crisis response plans and providing leadership. In short, interviewees stressed that having been exposed to a crisis response prior to leading one greatly improved their feelings of readiness. Most reported that while the day-to-day leadership skills practiced in an office setting hold value during an incident, effectiveness during crises largely results from specific training and experience. In other words, someone who demonstrates successful leadership in an office setting is not guaranteed to exhibit effective leadership when responding to a crisis—the opposite also holds true.
Arguably, crisis leadership is multifaceted and requires a conglomeration of skills and abilities. Nonetheless, respondents in this study identified four broad components to effective crisis response strategies: development of interpersonal skills, management proficiency, leadership presence, and preparation.
Development of Interpersonal Skills
Law enforcement executives often assert, “Mission first, people always.” Even in crisis, personnel constitute a priority. Have they eaten, slept, spoken with their families, or had a chance to share their ideas? Effective leaders—during a critical incident or not—must listen, solicit feedback, seek advice, and remain approachable. Over half of interviewees identified these leadership traits as among the strongest characteristics that can foster positive outcomes both in and out of crisis response.
In contrast, some respondents cited struggles with interpersonal skills, which they identified as challenges that had to be overcome for them to effectively lead both in and out of crises. For instance, a few regretted the possibility of appearing unconcerned for their personnel during an incident due to their preoccupation with the matters at hand.
In the inevitable chaos, leaders easily can forget the human aspect. However, when they know their team members and have these aptitudes, they can lead more naturally.
Training in Leadership During Crises
Law enforcement command-level education specific to leadership in crisis situations proves necessary.
Throughout the study, interviewees stressed the importance of training continuously and remaining a student of leadership, particularly pertaining to crisis. From reading articles to performing case study reviews to conducting full-scale training exercises, education—outside of experience—is essential for response readiness.
Lines of Authority and Command-Decision Responsibility
While recently improved via presidential policy directives and frameworks for responding to national-scale disasters, authorities still must address persistent ambiguities that emerge regarding lines of authority and decision-making responsibility.2
Some interviewees discussed the potential for confusion and disputes concerning lead and support roles when it comes to crisis response. Most, however, highlighted that the most productive course is for agencies to work together and coordinate responses until additional investigation brings clarity to the details of which authorities lead the response. According to these accounts, a strong value was placed upon law enforcement leaders who collaborated on decisions that allowed personnel to function more as a team and less like opposing forces.
Interviewees identified mentorship as another important facet for leaders to develop and leverage. Most respondents felt that they had personally benefited from a formal or informal counselor who served as a role model, friend, sounding board, or other source of support and wisdom throughout their career.
Taking every opportunity to promote the growth of current and future leaders was thought to be crucial. Respondents suggested that such individuals derive confidence from the guidance, assistance, encouragement, and respect given from someone that they admire and seek to emulate.
Interestingly, one respondent stated, “If someone is naturally good with people, cares about people, and invests in people, then this act of mentorship is seen as less of a duty and [more as a reward] to the mentor.”
Arguably, effective leaders also must be able managers, especially during crisis. Approximately half of the interviewees cited administrative skills as a personal strength; in contrast, about one quarter identified challenges with a commonly recognized trait—communication.
Almost all respondents recognized that everyone has the potential to become a better leader, and they often reported acknowledging their own identified limitations. Additionally, many interviewees noted that responding to crises tended to expose strengths and weaknesses.
In light of these findings, to better prepare themselves to lead during critical incidents, interviewees identified skills in delegating, directing the team, and communicating as essential for leading successfully during a critical incident.
While many respondents identified delegation as an important trait they possessed, some reported that even experienced leaders could face challenges in this area. Specifically, hesitancy as a new leader or as a leader in a new office, jurisdictional ambiguity, unfamiliarity with team members, and a lack of relationships with partner law enforcement agencies were cited.
Lack of familiarity with the team was identified as a leadership challenge because delegating becomes difficult due to a lack of knowledge of team members’ skill sets or how best to interact with these personnel. This unfamiliarity also can stress relations with other law enforcement partners, further complicating delegation efforts during a crisis situation.
Directing the Team
Most interviewees reported that leaders must trust and rely on their team to not only operate effectively but assist leaders to act when necessary. Often, a single person cannot effectively manage information, tasks, personnel, and resources on scene during a crisis.
In some isolated cases, leaders reported difficulties with personnel who lacked experience and training or performed poorly. Interviewees stressed the importance of having persons with the appropriate skill sets on scene; fortunately, the absence of skilled personnel—an obstacle to effective crisis responses—rarely surfaced. A respondent advised that when necessary, leaders should “Have faith in them or the courage to remove them.” While certainly a tough decision, leaders should stand ready to make this call when necessary.
Effectiveness of On-Scene Commander Leadership
Specific training within law enforcement development programs should focus on what makes on-scene commander leadership and decision making most effective.
Many factors contribute to effective crisis leadership and decision making. While similar to crisis response, crisis leadership differs and requires somewhat distinctive skills and traits that developmental programs can train to and promote. Interviewees identified prior experience, past and current mentors, and training as most helpful to them in leading and making decisions during critical incidents.
Many issues can hinder on-scene communication.
Effective communication with all integral personnel holds importance for the investigation and resolution of the scene, as well as the morale of those responding. The flow of information and method of delivery can have a huge impact. Interviewees explained that effective leaders consistently: 1) shared clear updates, 2) solicited feedback and discussion from team members and partners as time allowed, 3) had established relationships with their teams and partners, and 4) communicated effectively with all personnel on scene. Already-established relationships facilitate effective communication with all personnel regardless of agency affiliation.
“…someone who demonstrates successful leadership in an office setting is not guaranteed to exhibit effective leadership when responding to a crisis—the opposite also holds true.”
Throughout the tenure of the study, respondents repeatedly identified having a strong leadership presence, often thought to be an intuitive skill, as critical. Leaders must project confidence during uncertain times and put people at ease—in short, “calmness in the storm.”
One senior police leader captured this notion:
We need our leaders to be like good flight attendants, parents, and lieutenants. If a flight attendant can keep composure, offer assurance, and—even better—serve drinks during bad turbulence, the passengers will feel more secure and confident that circumstances will result well. As a parent, if someone takes a tumble, don’t gasp. Toddlers often will cry when they take a small tumble, not because they have fallen far, but because they are reacting to the gasp! Just like a lieutenant in the heat of battle, lead with confidence. You cannot yell, ‘We’re all going to die!’ [I]f a flight attendant buckles up and starts screaming in fear during turbulence, everyone else also will panic.
Surprisingly, interviewees consistently considered this leadership trait important, yet few highlighted it as a personal strength. Arguably, many leaders possess this skill without realizing it.
Respondents overwhelmingly suggested that leaders stand prepared to face critical incidents. They considered experience in and familiarity with crisis response, by far, the best teachers and aids for leaders during these situations.
Overall, interviewees reported feeling as ready as possible for a crisis to ensue. However, several noted that responders never can prepare too much and that in this day and age, annual crisis training by itself may not afford enough exposure to such circumstances to retain the learning that such training can afford. Some of the biggest challenges were seen to be experienced by new leaders or leaders that were new to an agency, leaders that were in an acting capacity, and inexperienced leaders. In these situations, leaders may struggle with unfamiliarity both with their own teams as well as outside law enforcement officials while they may, also, not be familiar with the agency crisis response plan.
Crises Within a Crisis
In the midst of the chaos and uncertainty brought on by a critical incident, leaders may face additional, unforeseen challenges that can aggravate an already volatile situation and threaten the efficiency and success of a response. However, at least some can be prevented or mitigated.
Unfamiliarity with Personnel
To help avoid hindering an effective response, leaders must build relationships with their team members. This familiarity should go beyond face-to-face recognition and extend to frequent conversations and interactions prior to an incident. Respondents who have experience working alongside partners during a critical incident response suggested, for instance, learning about the neighboring police chief’s children, perhaps the county sheriff’s hobbies, or even the FBI crisis management coordinator’s favorite restaurant.
Interviewees further suggested similar activities as regular coffee and breakfast discussions, frequent joint table-top exercises, and monthly crisis management working group meetings. Shared training events prove especially important; however, beyond these interactions, respondents also emphasized the value of unscheduled and nonroutine contacts.
Throughout the study, interviewees heavily emphasized the importance of such relationships not only for the increased likelihood of success in a crisis response but also the overall effectiveness of public safety.
Best Practices from After-Action Report Processes
A transparent and nonattributable after-action report (AAR) process emphasizes improving leadership and decision making. When an AAR process is done in this way, it creates an environment whereby the courage to identify and rectify leadership shortfalls can result in best practices.
Many interviewees highlighted the need for open, candid discussion and feedback after a crisis response to best remedy shortcomings and prepare for future incidents. Many AAR practices do not support such candid sharing of information. More commonly, many respondents reported that AAR processes often are hindered by a lack of honest insight due to fear of repercussions at the social or political level. Also, the study results revealed that AARs often are agency specific and lack a comprehensive view of the incident response. Further, most responders cited informative AAR processes as a valuable tool to collect information after an incident, with the aim of better preparation for the next crisis.
Failure of Technology
Interviewed leaders also reported the failure of communications technology as another common issue during critical incidents. One respondent offered sarcastically, “Why would communications work during a crisis?”
Challenges cited included poor mobile service, different radio frequencies between neighboring law enforcement entities, inoperable equipment, and lack of knowledge about partner agencies’ information management systems. Of course, cell phones become so overloaded with texts, e-mails, and calls that they can cease to work, particularly during a large-scale response.
Leaders can foresee and adjust for at least some communications challenges prior to a crisis. For instance, in case technology fails, interviewees recommended having standard office supplies handy. While pens, paper, and whiteboards will not facilitate updates between locations, they will allow personnel on scene to track personnel, leads, and tips.
Some respondents identified organized chaos as the best result possible in the beginning of a crisis and said that leaders should anticipate this from the start.
Challenges in Rural Areas
Crises in remote locations can present unique challenges to a successful response. Interviewees often cited factors, such as communities that do not favor law enforcement, perhaps because of agencies’ involvement in local affairs, or distance-related communications-technology problems.
Additionally, getting personnel and resources to the scene can take much more time. Extreme terrain and weather can aggravate this issue further.
“Crisis leadership is not a new subject for law enforcement; however, critical incidents take different forms and occur at faster rates than ever before.”
Also, distance can hinder building and maintaining relationships, especially between partners with limited interaction. Interviewees stated that bridging this span and making the extra effort to meet with these individuals and agencies regularly pays invaluable dividends when a crisis occurs.
Difficulties with Politics
Political challenges depend on the particular crisis, jurisdiction, and individuals in office. Respondents consistently reported navigating this area of concern as a difficult task, one that they felt ill prepared for. Most explained that they would have taken different approaches (e.g., working more proactively and managing the roles of politicians differently) and that additional knowledge beforehand would have proven helpful.
Interviewees found it challenging to determine the best course of action and protect the scene, investigation, and personnel involved while avoiding unnecessary conflicts with powerful people. They suggested on several occasions that leaders become more aware of the potential political complexities and perhaps develop anticipatory strategies to address these issues.
Lack of knowledge of an agency’s crisis response plan causes significant problems when an incident occurs. In one case, an interviewee did not know—until encountering a critical incident—that one did not even exist. Other respondents discovered that their plan had become outdated when they needed it. Interviewees consistently reported the importance of keeping the crisis response plan current and providing related training to prepare for a potential incident.
Positive Outcomes Related to On-Scene Command
Identification of the tenets or precepts of on-scene command can increase the likelihood of effective and positive outcomes to the crisis.
While no set rule book or method for addressing critical incidents exists, continual study and analysis of critical incidents can assist those preparing for and responding to a crisis incident. The best practices, challenges, words of wisdom, and other relevant information provided by interviewees can serve as learning tools and help ensure effective and positive outcomes to crises. However, they are aids, not solutions. As many interviewees pointed out, no two incidents are the same.
This study merely touched on the many important facets of leading through crisis incidents. While the previous article sought to address various elements in this current discussion, the new data collected and analyzed here affords several conclusions and insights that were not anticipated.
Leadership and crisis response—two complicated, multifaceted topics—require continuous examination in various situations and at all levels. “[L]eading day-to-day looks a bit different than leading in a crisis response, and the required skill sets also are a bit different.”3
These new findings support the conclusion that leadership, especially when wielded during a crisis, is a conglomeration of personality, experience, motivation, support from others, and confidence. Continuous practice is needed because skills need consistent exercise, evaluation, and tuning for the best chances of an optimal outcome. As one interviewee explained, “A good leader remains a student of leadership.”
Crisis leadership is not a new subject for law enforcement; however, critical incidents take different forms and occur at faster rates than ever before. The ideas and best practices shared here can help responders to learn from others and provide analytical support for potential updates to current policy and practice. Perhaps the best guidance and insight pertaining to leadership during these events come from those with crisis experience and the appropriate skill set. This holds true in any field of study.
This article has encapsulated a highlighted summary that offers much of what 75 law enforcement leaders have learned on the vital topic of crisis response. However, challenges, best practices, suggestions, warnings, good stories and bad—much remains to be learned and practiced about leadership in and out of critical events, crisis response, and the development of future law enforcement leaders.
“…much remains to be learned and practiced about leadership in and out of critical events, crisis response, and the development of future law enforcement leaders.”
Dr. Jarvis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and Dr. Murray at email@example.com.
1 Leonard Johns and John Jarvis, “Leadership During Crisis Response: Challenges and Evolving Research,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, May 11, 2016, accessed March 4, 2019, https://leb.fbi.gov/articles/featured-articles/leadership-during-crisis-response-challenges-and-evolving-research.
2 “Presidential Policy Directives (PPDs), Barack Obama Administration,” Federation of American Scientists, accessed March 4, 2019, http://fas.org/irp/offdocs/ppd/.
3 Johns and Jarvis.