Command leadership under fire: What makes the "right stuff"?

Q: During critical incidents, what allows one commanding officer to remain calm and focused in the heat of battle, while another is more likely to fold under pressure?  Are certain commanders just “born leaders” or is superior command leadership a quality that can be learned?


AP Photo/Jimmy May

A: Actually, it’s a little of both – innate talent, bolstered and refined by hard work and proper training.   Think of the professional athlete.  Certainly, without a natural gift for his or her sport, all the training in the world won’t take him or her past the B+ range.  But raw talent alone is insufficient – the athlete has to work at developing that skill to its ultimate level. 

It’s the same with mental and people skills like leadership.  By dint of intellect, temperament, and personality, some individuals may be “natural born leaders.”  But without honing those skills in the real world of managing people under stress, this will remain a largely undeveloped potential.

Having said that, here is a representative inventory of skills and traits that most psychologists and emergency service professionals would agree on as the basis for effective incident command leadership during most kinds of critical incidents.

  • Communication:  This involves both input and output.  The effective leader quickly and accurately assimilates what others tell him/her from a morass of often rushed, confused, and conflicting information, and is able to translate complex plans and strategies into specific, focused directives to appropriate personnel.

  • Team Management:  The effective leader coordinates the efforts of individual team members into a united force.  He/she is able to delegate responsibilities as needed, but can quickly jump in and take personal control where necessary.

  • Decision Making Under Stress:  It’s not enough to keep from panicking under life-and-death conditions – the effective command leader must be able to think clearly and make critical split decisions under fire.  This requires the ability to tune out the noise, take in and distill the relevant environmental data, and come up with a useful response.  The key is not to be “relaxed,” but to maintain an optimal arousal state of focused concentration without distracting anxiety.

  • Planning, Implementing, and Evaluating:  This is related to above point.  Grace under pressure does little good if the leader lacks the cognitive skills to quickly and efficiently size up a situation, rule-in and rule-out the appropriate actions, implement those actions, and then accurately assess their effects on the overall crisis management situation.  In skilled critical incident command leaders, this cyclical process seems to act in a seamless, coordinated flow – which is why skilled crisis commanders are often said to make their job of managing emergencies “look easy.”  It isn’t easy, but skill, practice, and experience provide the level of expertise that almost always makes the commander’s decisions the right ones.

  • Emotional Stability:  Underlying the traits of superior command leadership is a basic emotional ballast and stability of character.  Sometimes subsumed under the heading of “charisma,” this leadership quality is more than just the brashness and swagger that this term implies.  Rather, it consists of a calm, purposeful, self-assured interpersonal style that inspires the troops with confidence and commands respect without having to fish for it.  This is the kind of leadership respect that is truly earned, and the team members will go out on a limb for this commander because they trust his/her judgment and commitment to the job and to themselves.

So, where do leaders come from, and can you learn to be one?  Again, like the athlete, it’s a combination of talent, training, and experience.  If you think you have command leadership potential and would like to test your mettle in challenging critical incident situations, then by all means take the leap, make the effort, and expose yourself to the training and experiences that will give you the best opportunities to lead under fire. 

For more on law enforcement leadership, go to Police Chief Magazine: Leadership Article.

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