Theories of Leadership and Emergency Management


From the dawn of humanity, various professional and social groups have been faced with serious challenges. In order to address pressing issues, people involved have had to consolidate their efforts and demonstrate a sufficient degree of expertise, knowledge, and resilience. However, the optimal manner of problem-solving requires an efficient allocation of the aforementioned resources. Extended groups may find it difficult to optimize their approach and direct the efforts of all participants in the required direction. As such, the concept of effective leadership has always played a role of paramount importance within virtually all spheres of human activities. Leaders are indispensable, as they pursue several key objectives in terms of inspiring their followers, selecting the optimal strategies, and utilizing the available assets. Nevertheless, leadership has remained a multifaceted notion due to the complexity of social and professional landscapes.

In other words, there exists a broad array of situations, and each context demands a particular approach to management. In the past, great warriors led entire armies to victory, whereas in more recent times, they were replaced by those who are able to think strategically. Next, the business environment has dictated utterly different approaches to management across eras. At first, the corporate sphere laid an emphasis on the effective distribution of resources and maximizing the operational profits of an organization. As the institutes of social thought became more developed, the focus gradually shifted toward more person-centered models of leadership, which consisted of creating a favorable atmosphere for the nurturing of human resources.

At the same time, emergency management is a unique sphere with its unparalleled tasks and objectives, which require an equally bespoke approach to leadership. The nature of the professional field per se is centered around crises, which may potentially be endured by the human civilization and specific communities. As such, the crisis is at the core of emergency management, placing additional requirements on the professionals engaged in it and leaders, in particular. The array of possible disasters, which form the area of professional emergency management expertise, has increased exponentially over the recent years, along with the development of technology and the emergence of new threats. As constructions and mechanisms become more complex, the frequency of human-made disasters increases accordingly, while domestic and international terrorism become an issue of growing concern for the international community (Misra et al., 2020). Therefore, emergency management naturally remains in the state of continuous development, and leaders are to be in the vanguard of this evolution.

Simultaneously, effective leadership in emergency management is required to reflect the nature of disaster response, as well. Said crises usually develop rapidly, as the context of each particular scenario remains subject to quick changes. The situation may take a completely different turn at any moment, meaning that the response team is to be prepared for it and able to readjust its operations in an equally rapid manner. Leaders should retain this degree of versatility and adaptability, as their purpose in emergency management is to coordinate the collective efforts of vast interprofessional units. Ultimately, it appears interesting to review whether the dominant theories of leadership, which are widely discussed and accepted in other settings, can be applied in such a particular scenario as emergency management. This paper relies on the synthesized review of recent academic findings on said topic in order to outline the key aspects of prominent leadership models in their contemporary understanding.

Review of Literature

Great Man Theory of Leadership

The theoretical understanding of leadership has undergone major changes along with the evolution of social and corporate thought. The so-called “Great Man” Theory (GMT) is one of the prominent views of management in the past. It reflects humanity’s innate pursuit of strong personalities who are naturally capable of inspiring others and leading them through the hardships of life. Khan et al. (2016) review the GMT in the historical context as one of the first fully established theories of leadership. According to it, certain people are naturally born with the qualities, which make them destined to become strong leaders. The article provides an objective review of the GMT while correctly outlining its flaws. The model in question became humanity’s first science-based attempt at providing a theoretical framework, which would describe leadership as the cornerstone of social and professional activities. The evolution of scientific and social thought urged experts to reconsider the postulates of the GMT, as the natural predisposition to leadership appears questionable within the current understanding of the term. Destiny is a vague concept, and its applicability to such vital, practice-oriented activities as emergency leadership is highly unlikely.

Trait Theory of Leadership

Nevertheless, the basic concept, which served as the foundation of the Great Man Theory, was not disregarded completely. Instead, the postulates underwent a significant degree of reconsideration within the paradigm of theoretical findings. The GMT, as the leading leadership theory, saw the evolution and took the form of the trait model of leadership (Wyatt & Silvester, 2018). The latter is based on the core idea of the former, according to which an individual is born with a certain set of characteristics, which contribute to their leadership potential. Spoken differently, a person is never destined to be a natural leader, but they may possess certain traits, becoming either enablers or impediments in this regard.

Accordingly, the Trait Theory retains the ascribing nature of its predecessor while refraining from the strict predetermination-based rhetoric. In fact, even though the applicability of such a model in the current environment appears highly questionable, Wyatt and Silvester (2018) argue that the Trait Theory retains its importance in specific spheres. As such, while innate characteristics may have a limited influence on the actual leadership performance, they do affect the perception of an individual by the public. Such an effect is instrumental in politics where voters determine the outcome based on their view of the circumstances and do not possess full knowledge of a candidate’s capability and qualities. The article by Wyatt and Silvester (2018) is essential for understanding the idea behind the Trait Theory in the 21st century. Interestingly, while the authors acknowledge the obsolete dogmas upon which the model is based, they provide a viable form in which the Trait Theory persists in the contemporary environment.

Primal (Emotional) Theory of Leadership

As society continued its development in the 20th-21st centuries, the sectors of human activities rapidly expanded in terms of both scale and scope. As a result, the global professional environment has seen a significant increase in the amount and quality of leadership models, which aim at encompassing various aspects of complex human relations. The primal theory of leadership applies the dogmas of emotional intelligence in a professional environment, addressing and evoking positive feelings among followers. As such, it focuses on the emotional aspect of professional activity as an effective source of internal motivation. Kang and Oh (2017) provide a comprehensive review of primal leadership, outlining its positive effects in the workplace environment. As suggested by their findings, the model promotes job satisfaction and commitment, which enables better performance of the team.

These aspects can be related to the field of emergency management, as the commitment of response unit members is an integral component of mitigating crises and saving residents’ lives. The primal theory of leadership differs from the earlier concepts described above in that it is centered around the follower rather than the leader. Ultimately, the positive effect is conditioned by the perception of the former and not the innate qualities of the latter.

Normative (Ethical) Theory of Leadership

The key concepts behind the primal theory of leadership demonstrate a strong link to the next model, which is to be discussed within the framework of the present review. However, while the previous approach dwelled on the emotional side of management, the normative theory of leadership is usually reviewed in the context of the team’s behavioral patterns. First of all, this model dictates the manner in which the leader is expected to act in order to cause a positive response and yield better results. As discussed by Peng and Kim (2020), normative or ethical leadership attains its objective through distinct mediating pathways. It comprises the exchange between the leader and their interpretation of the ethical culture within an organization. The process of management is to concentrate on ethical principles, which should be clearly transmitted to the followers through the leader’s personal example as the ultimate role model.

In other words, all decisions are expected to follow the aforementioned pathways in order to create an ethical environment in which the organization has a better chance to thrive. Overall, this approach to management appears rather broad and generalized, as ethical principles are widely recognized today as essential to the development of communities. As such, they are naturally expected to be thoroughly followed within all professional and social contexts, meaning that normative leadership can be considered as an integral component of leadership rather than a distinct model.

Behavioral Theory of Leadership

The behavioral theory of leadership is related to the previously discussed concept in that it focuses on the acting patterns of a manager. Oberer and Erkollar (2018) utilized behavioral leadership postulates as the theoretical core of their research. The article focuses on effective leadership techniques in the new age of the fourth industrial revolution. The particularities of the current period are vast, and they encompass all spheres of human activity due to the universal implementation of modern technology. The key mechanism of behavioral leadership relies on the observations of other prominent leaders’ approaches, which have proven their effectiveness. Another critical component consists of the objective evaluation of said styles and their adaptation to the challenges faced by a manager. Accordingly, this model requires a considerable degree of critical thinking exercised by the leader, as the behavioral experience of others is not to be followed blindly. To an extent, it can be applied in the emergency management context. If the approach is executed in a thorough manner, it has immense potential to promote effective decision-making and attain organizational goals.

Contingency (Situational) Theory of Leadership

On the other hand, the contemporary landscape is highly changeable, and this tendency is observed across industries. Furthermore, in the case of emergency management, changeability has become an integral characteristic of the operational environment, which poses additional requirements in terms of effective management paradigms. The Contingency Theory of Leadership (CTL) acknowledges this phenomenon and proposes a potentially effective framework to address it. According to the CTL, it is impossible to distinguish a particular approach to management, which would become equally applicable in all situations, even within one specific setting (Thompson & Glasø, 2018). On the contrary, a competent leader should demonstrate a considerable degree of adaptability, remaining prepared to adjust their tactical and strategical decision-making in accordance with the changeable environment. Thompson and Glasø (2018) reviewed the CTL in its contemporary understanding and concluded that the model attains its full potential on the condition that the leader’s assessment skills are on par. As such, the manager’s rating of their team should correspond to the unit’s self-assessment for the effective utilization of the CTL.

In other words, a leader should be correct in their estimations of their followers’ capability. As a matter of fact, the CTL appears to be instrumental in the sphere of emergency management due to its focus on flexibility and adaptation. Crises often unfold within minutes, and the details of an occurrence can change even more quickly. Therefore, emergency management leaders should be ready to adapt to the new developments. However, as dictated by the CTL, they are also to obtain a realistic, evidence-based understanding of the response team’s ability to complete certain tasks.

Chaos Theory of Leadership

Complexity has become the defining characteristic of the modern environment, in which globalization, technological progress, and political indeterminacy entail convoluted situations across different settings. Under these circumstances, the notion of chaos is attributed to a special meaning, as the current situation evokes associations with it. Chaos is the lack of order, and many opinions point toward the impossibility of exercising any degree of control over it. Nevertheless, the interdisciplinary chaos theory introduces a different perspective, stating that it is feasible to discern specific underlying patterns and interconnection even within the most complicated and seemingly disordered systems. This philosophy is often applied to leadership, as it states that a capable manager should be disconcerted by the perceived chaotic nature of a context. On the contrary, true mastery consists of the ability to distinguish patterns and devise methods of control over them. The field of emergency management is not an exception, as it is generally characterized by extreme unpredictability.

The application of chaos theory in the sphere of management has been an area of intense interest for researchers across the globe. As such, Watkins et al. (2017) review it in relation to the modern challenges faced by the institutions responsible for the education of contemporary leaders. The authors draw similarities between the chaos theory and the highly changeable environment of the 21st century, stating that modern leaders are to “sense environmental cues, adapt to rapidly changing contexts, and thrive in uncertainty” (para. 1). On the other hand, even small yet inconsiderate leadership actions can cause a lasting impact, which is reminiscent of the butterfly effect. The proponents of the chaos theory of leadership promote adaptability and flexibility of managers, who should be capable of adjusting to the emerging challenges. In this regard, this model can be reviewed within a broader context in its undeniable relation to the contingency theory of leadership, which demonstrates a high degree of applicability in emergency management.

Authoritative Theory of Leadership

As established in the prior sections, the contemporary academic environment possesses a considerable amount of research, which reflects the vast array of leadership theories. These models may vary based on several key parameters, and of them consists of the degree of the manager’s involvement. Some leaders prefer to nurture the autonomy of their workers and allow them to select optimal solutions individually, without supplementary supervision, thus adhering to the Laissez-Faire philosophy (Kanwal et al., 2019). On the other hand, some managers seek to exercise complete control over the procedures, resorting to the authoritative model. In this case, the leader remains hands-on, controlling as many tasks as possible.

At the same time, this methodology establishes a stronger image of the manager as the figure in charge of the operations. The study by Kanwal et al. (2019) has revealed that both authoritative and laissez-faire models contribute to the development of workplace ostracism in most situations. However, it is possible to theorize that the former approach can be more effective in emergency management. As discussed, this sphere is highly particular in terms of its distinct characteristics, and the severity of a crisis may demand an authoritative stance taken by the leader.

Transactional Theory of Leadership

Finally, there exist two dominant theories, which have been established to reflect the contemporary circumstances under which organizational leadership is exercised. The first model is titled the transactional theory of leadership, and it concentrates on the role of supervision, performance, and internal organization. Transactional leaders lay an emphasis on specific objectives, providing an additional incentive in the form of punishments and rewards (Martínez-Córcoles & Stephanou, 2017). Therefore, clear motivation is at the core of transactional leadership, which also requires concise and transparent directives provided by the management. Ma and Jiang (2018) offer an in-depth analysis of this model in the contemporary environment. The article explores the concept at length, providing a credible conclusion, which underlines the positive influence of transactional leadership on follower creativity. Nevertheless, while creative thinking is an increasingly important concept in the 21st century, its value may not be as significant in the field of emergency management, where units are to follow strict standards and protocols.

Creativity and improvisation in a stressful environment of an unfolding crisis may result in the poor execution of a leader’s commands, thus entailing a loss of control over an inherently challenging situation. The study by Martínez-Córcoles and Stephanou (2017) investigates the model’s effectiveness in the military context, which is partially related to emergency response unit operations. The article does not fully refute the transactional approach, but its findings limit the effect of the theory’s implementation to a particular aspect. More specifically, transactional leadership was found to have a positive impact on safety performance in military operations. However, while this aspect is important in emergency management, as well, the remaining limitations do not allow to consider transactional leadership an inherently suitable model in the sphere.

Transformational Theory of Leadership

On the other hand, transformational leadership has become another dominant paradigm in the contemporary environment. Its core objective intersects with the purpose of the transactional model in that it seeks to foster commitment and encourage the followers. However, the means by which the goal is attained are different in this scenario. The transformational theory is pointed at a broader perspective, and it does not comprise micromanagement. Unlike transactional leaders, the transformational ones do not concentrate on immediate tasks (Delegach et al., 2017). Instead, their vision extends to the global objectives of an organization, aiming at transforming its image and the entire industry, hence the name of the model. The analysis by Delegach et al. (2017) has shown that similarly to transactional leadership, the transformational model positively affects the team’s commitment and safety performance, making it a viable human resource instrument. Ma and Yang (2020) concur with the proponents of this approach. According to them, transformational leaders are inspiring and charismatic, which inevitably finds a positive reflection in an organization’s performance.

The aforementioned characteristics make transformational leadership a valid choice of management style in emergency response. In fact, research suggests that it has proven its effectiveness in one of the largest healthcare emergencies in recent history, which is the Covid-19 pandemic (Ma & Yang, 2020). However, it is necessary to outline some limitations conditioned by the complexity of the emergency management field. Transformational leadership appears particularly effective on higher echelons of emergency management, i.e., the level of policy-makers. Leaders of the entire sphere can utilize the benefits of the transformational model to render emergency management safer and more efficient, redefining its image as a profession. At the same time, the lack of micromanagement may be detrimental on the scale of a single response team working at the site of a specific disaster.


Overall, the review of existing literature suggests that the variety of leadership theories is wide, and the array continues to expand presently. As inferred from the analysis, it is not possible to discern a single model, which can be universally and unanimously applied in the sphere of emergency management. Accordingly, it is theorized that a multi-level hierarchy of leadership styles will be the most effective approach in this regard. On the global policy-making level, the postulates of transformational leadership can be instrumental in promoting the development of the sphere, in general. Charismatic leaders with a clear vision will be able to optimize the allocation of resources and select suitable strategies for the development of the profession. Next, on the level of specific challenges enabled by particular emergencies, the contingent approach will ensure the team’s adaptability under the rapidly unfolding circumstances. This way, it will be possible to incorporate some elements of transactional leadership into emergency management. However, the primary incentive of all response team members should not depend on the leader’s style. After all, saving lives and mitigating the consequences of a dangerous crisis is to be the ultimate reward for all response units.


In conclusion, the selection of a leadership style accounts for a considerable portion of the general organizational performance. This area of theoretical and empirical research has seen an evolution across the past decades, which has changed the direction of leadership theories. Previously, the academic community popularized the ideas of innate leadership in either hard or soft forms. However, as the scientific and philosophical thought developed, so did the views on management. The concept of natural leadership selections has become invalid, as additional emphasis has been laid on acquired characteristics. Furthermore, the contemporary paradigms of management increasingly focus on ethics and inclusion. The leading models of the 21st century promote commitment and trust through positive motivation and integrity. Nevertheless, the field of emergency management should not rely on a single leadership strategy, as the complexity of the area requires a multilateral approach. Further research in the area can focus on specific scenarios in which the effectiveness of particular leadership theories will be assessed.


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