Eyes Wide Open! Leadership and Situational Awareness

Posted: July 13, 2017

This Coffee Break Bulletin addresses why emergency services leaders always need to be aware of their situation and personnel.

eye glasses making a city scene more clear

Situational awareness is a foundational part of knowing how to establish a course of action and then assess those actions in light of outputs and outcomes. While it’s easy to apply this practice in theory, in post-incident reviews the actual application is often found to be less than it should have been. This “less than” status can stem from a number of variables — from simple complacency to an overload of inputs, to a dramatically changing event which just does not allow time for adequate assessment before action must be taken.

When exercising leadership, situational awareness is just as important during a non-emergency event as it is on the emergency scene. Failure to maintain an “eyes wide open” approach during a non-emergency event can produce just as detrimental a set of outcomes as the variables and influences at an emergency event. The difference between the emergency and non-emergency event is during the latter, over time, complacency (or perhaps over-familiarization) creeps in and soon blinds the leader to what others will later say was obvious. Sadly, this blindness can result in tragedy.

One such blindness (lack of situational awareness) impacting the fire and Emergency Medical Services (EMS) agencies with tragic results is emotional or mental illness among our members. Contrary to our “superhuman self-view,” we are in fact human and subject to the anguish and pains that those we serve are often suffering. The person in the leadership position is not immune. In our culture of family, we will often discount the signs and symptoms, or the cries for help which our members demonstrate. Being situationally aware is only one-half of the equation. Being willing to act on that awareness takes leadership.

An “eyes-wide-open” approach to those we work with every day must be a conscious effort of every leader. The blindingly obvious is one thing when it is not addressed, but of greater significance is the not so obvious: the subtle indications of a member in need of emotional support which grows over time. We fail to see it because our vision becomes blurred with over-familiarization and complacency.

The people you serve with should be your first priority. Know your people. When behaviors become a concern, know what types of assistance are available, such as employee assistance programs, critical incident stress programs, detox resources, clergy, peer counselors, and so forth. Don’t wait to act on the clues. Provide assistance right away.

And lastly, have personal situational awareness. While keeping eyes wide open for others, remember all leadership starts with self-leadership. Keep your own internal eyes open and exercise self-leadership. After all, you are human too!

Action step for better situational awareness

If you are a Company Officer or an emerging emergency services leader, consider applying for the National Fire Academy’s Managing Officer Program. Through this program, you will develop personal and professional skills in change management, risk reduction and adaptive leadership.

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