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Opinion: An emergency manager’s 5 rules of leadership

February 16, 2023
By Jay Shaw

Municipal emergency manager Jay Shaw shares his five rules of leadership, each a foundational skill that can ensure effectiveness in the emergency management profession.


Emergency response crew in action at the B.C. Provincial Emergency Co-ordination Centre. Photo: Province of British Columbia.

The future of emergency management (EM) in Canada is strong. Across the country we are seeing the depth and breadth of this profession expand, arguably as a result of the increasing frequency of hazards and risks.

We have big issues that this magazine will be looking to tackle, but no matter what the next years bring us, the key to making sure our effectiveness will match the challenges will always be how we lead. Leadership will be the most important tool for emergency managers as we move ahead to face today’s and tomorrow’s challenges. The problem, as I see it, is that we struggle to define leadership. It has become both a buzzword and its own industry.

Over years of learning as a student of EM and leadership, making a ton of mistakes along the way, I have picked up a few things from mentors and leaders I now hold in high regard. To simplify these lessons for myself, I created five quick rules of leadership. Each one I see as a foundational skill and a prerequisite before moving to the next.

Books have been read, conferences attended, coffees bought, and experiences had to shape how I feel about this topic. These rules are me boiling down what I’ve learned to answer the basic question, “How you actually do and action leadership?”

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These five rules are not written in stone. I can assure you my views on leadership will evolve over time. Take from this what you will, and hopefully they will motivate you as they do me.

The five rules:

1) We lead people and we manage things. We are responsible first for the wellness and then the performance of our people. When we mess this up or get this backwards, we lose, period. Our people must be No. 1. Learn the difference between leading and managing, lead first, and we win.

2) Check your ego. You have one and so do I. Our ability to harness emotional intelligence is critical. Far too often our emotions get in the way, and we all know what happens next. The second we let our egos get the best of us, we’ve lost the room and the people in it. Learn about emotional IQ and how humility is possibly the No. 1 skill of a leader. This rule is so critical because so much of what we do is in the shadows. Remember: when nothing bad happened, it’s probably because we did our jobs.

3) Extreme accountability. “It’s your fault!” Wow, those words hurt the ears, but they should only be said in our heads since this is a mindset of responsibility. We must own our environment. When our teams make an error, it’s our fault. Of course, this does not absolve anyone else of accountability, but we as the leaders must pay the price first. That is the cost of leading. Once we own it, it’s amazing to see how others follow this mindset – problems get solved, accountability is grown, and our people are free to bring their questions and concerns to us without fear of repercussions because they know their leader has their back.

4) It’s not a failure of communication, it’s a failure of leadership. Stop the comms blame game. We chose to not effectively communicate, rushed the project, assumed an answer without checking, or didn’t want to have the difficult conversation. For the last zillion years, our after action reports have pointed to a comms problem. Be better. Do better. Follow rule No. 3 and communicate effectively, and we win.

5) Leadership is a muscle. Leaders need to grow, rest, and feed their souls to lead effectively. If we don’t embrace learning, growing and getting better, we will atrophy just like a muscle that is not used. When this happens, we may find ourselves in a pickle with our compasses de-magnetized and our leadership capacity in peril. We all have seen what happens next. Take the vacation, pay attention to mental health and burnout, and encourage others to take care of theirs. If we are not reading, learning and discussing leadership, we are going backwards, period.

Each of these rules has hundreds of books, conversations and lessons to explore. All of us will fall off the path, faulter and make errors, but rest assured those who get back up, brush off, evaluate and get back to the work of leading will almost always have a better outcome in the end, and that is critical for the work we do.

I have constantly messed up these rules and that is why I keep trying to learn, grow and live like a student of leadership.

I’m reminded of a Brené Brown leadership special on Netflix in which she speaks of a famous quote from Theodore Roosevelt. I like to think the name of the speech should be “Emergency Manager in the Arena.”

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

This profession is filled with amazing leaders across all provinces and territories. We all know that more disasters and impacts are coming. The glue that will hold this profession together comes from each of us and our ability to lead as individuals and build teams that will, no doubt, save the day.


Jay Shaw is the assistant chief of emergency management and public information with the City of Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service, leading the city’s Office of Emergency Management.


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