Fire Fighting in Canada

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All Hands on Deck: Let’s end ‘performative leadership’

Emergency manager Alishia Ivany reflects on the role of meaningful leadership to encourage and support underrepresented voices that are ready to disrupt the disaster and emergency management field.

April 25, 2023 
By Alishia Ivany



Editor’s note: This is the first in Avert’s column series All Hands on Deck, exploring diversity, equity, and inclusion in emergency management. If you’re interested in writing on this subject, please contact editor Maria Church mchurch@annexbusinessmedia.com.  

 

Last week I was settling in to read Maria Morukian’s book, Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion for Trainers. I got part of the way into Chapter 1 when I ran into the term “performative allyship.” The term is explained by Morukian as, “posting a statement or updating a website to say one is committed to diversity…,” but no real actions take place to support and encourage diversity.

When I read about performative allyship, I instantly thought about how this applies to my field: emergency management. That led me to think about what I have seen on LinkedIn recently by leaders in the field. While some are outstanding and walking the leadership walk, others seem to be merely performing for an audience. There are many posts and articles chalk full of the buzzwords around being a great leader, but no action. This, I see, as performative leadership.

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Why are we listening to these people, yet not holding them accountable to follow through on being meaningful leaders to the people they are representing? And this means all of the people, not just the majority, or the groups that they are most comfortable identifying with.

No matter where you fit on the emergency management landscape, at the core of what we do is relationships, building them, maintaining them, leveraging them during an event. This, then, should be natural within our profession – treating each other with respect and hearing out everyone’s ideas, even if they are at odds with your own.

The field is changing. We are in a tumultuous period where the number of those who have formal education in emergency management and the number of those who have experience is starting to even out.

With this change, there is prime opportunity to incorporate people from all walks of life.

A good place to start making and seeing changes is in the conference circuit of emergency management. Here are some ideas I know I’d like to see more of: A commitment to gender equity in the speakers; setting a reasonable conference fee so that everyone – not just those who can afford it – has the opportunity to attend; allowing students from different professions the opportunity to come and see what our field is all about; and selecting speakers who challenge the status quo and offer new ideas to our field.

How can we expect to be truly committed to equity if we only ever hear comfortable messages that support our current thinking? Our profession is all about disruption. Why then are we so afraid of disrupting what has been the norm for so long? That brings to mind a phrase that I’ll often use when I’m a part of conference planning: I want you to be uncomfortable in the conference sessions. I don’t want you to be distressed, but to experience eustress, or good stress. I want you to be so invigorated by what you are learning that you can’t wait to get back to your organization and start to implement change.

These changes can be small and simple, or complex and challenging, but worth the effort:

  • Purposefully choose to incorporate someone onto your team who isn’t already represented. What voice are you not hearing? Are you creating space for all team members to share their opinions in an environment where they feel safe to do so? When you are the only representative of your gender, culture, or skin colour around a table, it can be difficult to speak up. Leaders should purposefully create that space in a way that reflects how your team works maybe through follow up emails, or a quick phone call.
  • Do meaningful check-ins with the team. Be curious about your teammates. Ask about their lives, respect their perspectives and experiences, then truly listen to what they say. No emails while you chat. No quick text messages while they share their stories.
  • Be accountable to all members of your team, including yourself. The members of your team are your teammates. We all sink or swim together. The first part of the LEADS framework is “lead self” and it’s the pillar that too many of us give ourselves a pass on. It’s the first one because it’s the most important. Be accountable to yourself, examine your own behaviours and reactions. If leadership is the base of any great team, there should be a firm foundation to build on.
  • Create a space where conflict is regularly practiced. Learn how to have uncomfortable conversations. How is it three million copies of Crucial Conversations were sold, and we still aren’t getting this? Your team should disagree among themselves, and they should know how to do that respectfully. The ideas that come from the team will be stronger for the discussion, and your team will be that much stronger, too.

Friction is needed to start a fire, it’s not the fire’s fault if it gets out of control. It is up to us to choose whether the fire burns down the house or warms the occupants.

To all those who feel that they aren’t leaders because they don’t have the title: stop it. You are a leader, your voice matters. To all those who have the title but aren’t yet walking the walk. Stop it. You are missing out on great people with important perspectives. To all those writing articles that you don’t intend to follow. Stop it. We are watching.


Alishia Ivany (she/her) is the territorial manager of training and development for the Emergency Disaster Services team of The Salvation Army Canada & Bermuda Territory. True to her Cape Breton roots Alishia loves a good rant. She also hates writing bios. Prior to joining Salvation Army EDS, Alishia was part of the emergency preparedness program at Nova Scotia Health. Alishia enjoys outdoor activities and is an avid reader.


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