Leadership and Professional Local Government Managers: Before, During, and After a Crisis

April 25, 2019

International City/County Management Association (ICMA)

The leadership and management skills of professional local government managers are tested when confronted with an emergency or crisis situation. Natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes, tornados, and wildfires can cause severe disruptions to the local government organization and to the community for days or years. The same is true for human-created crises such as mass shootings, violent protests, and industrial accidents. Crises typically occur with little or no warning, requiring an immediate response as well as the forethought to plan for the mid-term and long-term consequences.

The purpose of this report is to understand the common and effective leadership and management skills and techniques that professional managers deploy when a crisis strikes. ICMA wishes to understand the lessons learned from its members and to identify leading or promising practices that can be adopted by others. This project seeks to capture the ideas, feelings, and stories of the professional managers who were involved in different crises. The report is targeted to professional local government managers to provide peer learning and to promote connections across the profession.

The importance of advance preparation and training for crisis management was repeatedly identified as important. Despite that planning, a common theme is that the actual crisis will be different from what was anticipated; however, advance planning
and experience provide a foundation to improvise and adapt to the unique elements of a crisis. Formal reviews after the crisis are important for documenting what was learned, to confirm what went well, to identify mistakes that were made, and to revise plans for subsequent responses.
The importance of preparation—including learning and applying the lessons of others—cannot be understated even for localities that rarely or have never experienced a crisis. The cases in this study described the experiences of managers who were responding to events that they had never imagined or at a scale that was never imagined. Most had never had national news media in the locality before the crisis reviewed.

This project is not a substitute for emergency management guidance available online through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Justice (DOJ). It is also not a substitute for the many third-party after-action reviews available, reviews that contain valuable and detailed operational and tactical lessons learned. This research project supplements these other resources, sharing the insights of battle-tested managers with other managers. An annotated bibliography is provided from the after-action reviews for the events covered and other recent events, as well as a bibliography of other essential resources.

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