Leadership Skills in Search and Rescue Teams

SAR Leadership CompasssMany volunteer SAR leaders come into the community with a number of leadership skills gained already, whether in a military or emergency service background or from leadership and management positions in business. These skills are invaluable, especially during SAR incidents where good quality leadership and management help define the SAR response and truly save lives.



However, many find that these same skills and leadership styles struggle to cope with the day-to-day running of a volunteer SAR organisation. Why?

Many, if not most, SAR organisations around the world are set up and run by volunteers. Working with a group of volunteers is very different from working with a team in business or emergency services. This difference is not usually seen during incidents where the chain of command works well, whatever discipline or incident you are dealing with. The hardship comes when dealing with the day-to-day management of the organisation or charity.

This is because these do not follow the usual hierarchy found in other organisations. Leaders are usually voted on at annual general meetings and can be changed if the membership do not agree with their direction and leadership. Likewise, even as the "head" of a SAR organisation, the authority is not absolute and committee members and volunteers always have the option of ignoring the directive and/or walking away.

That is not to say that good leadership and management skills are irrelevant; far from it. SAR organisations demand the very best in leaders, probably more so than outside organisations where individuals can flourish using a more authoritarian style, especially in certain organisations and businesses where there is a historic culture of this.

A leader in a SAR organisation really needs a strong toolkit of leadership and management skills and the ability to change their leadership style dependant on the situation and demands.

Adair's model of leadership allows SAR leaders to really reflect on the situation and adapt the leadership style and activity dependant on the needs at the time.

Adair suggests that leadership consists of three core activities; working towards the goal, improving the team and team working, and building the individual. Each situation/activity is likely to involve one or more of these in varying amounts but the good leader will be able to understand which is which and how best to achieve the specific goals of each.

For example, during any SAR incident the priority is going to be the task; whether a missing person, sinking yacht or collapsed building search. During that incident all the work the leader has put in to ensuring the team work well together and individuals are fully trained allows for an effective resolution to the task. All the individuals will become very task-orientated and will forgive much in working towards a successful resolution.

However, outside the incident using the same brusk orders might well result in an internal argument, splits within SAR teams and people leaving and setting up their own groups.

Leaders need to be aware of this and use differing leadership styles when working with the group or individuals at different times. This is where the big toolbox of leadership skills and activities is important. Leaders are creators, managers, motivators, coaches and visionaries. They need to be able to adapt from person to person, situation to situation working towards a common goal or vision.

When leaders fail to do this, generally through a single-minded view or a lack of skills and experience in dealing with volunteers, you will inevitably see the breakdown of groups and organisations, splits and dissension and in some cases threats and legal action. This happens across the world and across the SAR disciplines.

A famous UK advert suggested it was "good to talk". It is more than good. It is essential; good leaders are good communicators! Good leaders bring groups together.

Where is your SAR team heading?
If you can answer that question you will have a good insight into your team's leadership.
If you are the leader, you can ask your team. Their answers will tell you all you need to know about your leadership.