Effective Leadership


Over the past three posts, I’ve written about how the lessons I learned in search and rescue translate into business.  These foundational pieces – trust, training, teamwork, and leadership — are key in building successful organizations.  Ignoring cracks in your foundation can lead to catastrophic results.

Today’s post is the last in the series – a post on leadership.

To put it bluntly, without leadership, search and rescue would just be a bunch of people wondering aimlessly through the woods. Leadership is a critical piece of any organization, especially in search and rescue. A call-out for a missing hiker deploys resources (people) and when arriving on scene teams report to an incident command center where they are dispatched in the field with a common mission – to safely find and return a missing person or persons.

The incident commander, or leader, needs to have trust in confidence in the team’s abilities and then empower them to do their job to the best of their abilities. It is the leader’s job to manage many things, including the teams (resources), the progress of the mission, ensure safety, and communicate with not only the people in the field, but with other agencies, volunteers, the media, and the missing person’s family. Teams in the field rely on the commander for guidance and direction.

In search and rescue, as in business, people are the most valuable asset. A good leader puts people first and cares about each team member.  It is a leader’s responsibility to:

  • Motivate – If you want to motivate your team, present clear goals and let them know why what you’re doing is important. In search and rescue, a leader may send a team in a direction that seems puzzling, and without explanation could prove demotivating. Conversely, telling the team why (a person suffering from hypothermia will often do X) creates buy-in to the mission and a team motivated to complete tasks at hand. In business, let your team know why something is important to a customer – they may not recognize the benefit without the knowledge. It is just as vital that leaders themselves are motivated and keep a positive attitude.  They provide the drive which moves projects forward.
  • Communicate – The most important thing any leader can do is communicate. Communicate goals, plans, roadmaps, strategy and more. Let people know when they are doing a good job, and do it immediately and publically.  When a team member veers off track and needs guidance, do it immediately and do it privately.  Managers who collect ‘problem lists’ and hold it until it an annual performance review are, well, bad managers.  Immediate feedback including coaching and mentoring are a leader’s job.

The other side of communication is listening.  Listen to what your team members have to say, it’s important. On a search, incident command checks in at regular frequencies with each team.  Part of this check-in is to communicate progress of the mission, to listen to what is happening in the field and to make directional changes if necessary.  The other part of these check-ins is to make sure that each team is safe and doing well.  Make it a regular part of your business to make sure your people are on track and doing well.

  • Empower – General George Patton famously said, “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”  Leadership is not standing over your team’s shoulder and watching everything they do, nor is it doing tasks for them (micromanagement is bad).  A leader’s job is to provide guidance and encouragement as well as the freedom to do their job.  You’ve put the time into developing a good team and training them well. Now trust them and give them the freedom to do their job.

These are just a few of many of the responsibilities of a leader.  If you want to grow as a leader there is a ton of information available. A good place to start is with yourself.  Think about leaders who were motivating and managers who were demotivating – you can learn a lot from each.  Taking a page out of search and rescue, start with a good team, train them well, build trust and lead them down a path where everyone learns, returns safely and accomplishes the mission.

Wendy Dutenhoeffer is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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