Qualities of a great CERT Leader


Qualities of a Great CERT Leader
Kurt Lutterman, Bellevue CERT
April 12, 2023

From the vantage of observing several CERT exercises over the years, I realize there is a general hesitancy for CERT members to step into a leadership role. The reasons seem to fall into a few general themes:
• Someone else will do it.
• Someone else is better qualified than I.
• I will get it wrong.
• I don’t have the skills.

Some of those hesitations may in fact be true today. But it doesn’t have to stay that way! CERT leader qualities of leadership and management can be learned. And like any new skill, those qualities can be enhanced with practice and repetition.

My goal here is to give you the confidence to take on CERT leadership roles! YOU make a more effective and resilient team when YOU can step into more roles in an incident response.

There has been much written on the difference between leadership and management. I have never seen clear definitions that make sense to me. Suffice it to say that both technical and people skills are necessary to accomplish a task with a team of people. My background as a Navy submarine officer and a corporate project manager informs my thoughts on CERT leadership and management, but tailored to the unique requirements of a CERT incident response.

So here is my list of the learn-able and practice-able qualities of a great CERT leader (adapted from the acknowledgements below).

1. Character Traits
When I first started writing this list, I didn’t realize the personal qualities sub-list would be so long. Contemplating this list, each quality listed is important in its own right, and deserves to be on this list. But the good news is that you already have all of these qualities! You just need to be mindful of them, and choose an effective response when challenges appear. For each of these qualities, which of the two statements is more effective?
a. Passion
i. “We’ll probably do some good today.”
ii. “I know that this team is going to make a huge difference today.”
b. Trustworthiness
i. “It’s OK to put out that fire yourself. Just don’t tell anyone.”
ii. “Because CERT is built on the buddy system, I will find a buddy to put out that fire with you.”
c. Optimism
i. “Why does everything have to go wrong today?”
ii. “There have been challenges today, but I’m certain we’ll work through them.”
d. Perseverance
i. “To heck with this! I’m outta here.”
ii. “Wow… this is really hard. What can we all do to make this easier?”
e. Empathy
i. “That last task wasn’t very hard. You should be ready for another.”
ii. “I know there were challenges in that last task. Why don’t you take a rest and let me know when you’re ready for another assignment.”
f. Composure
i. “Dammit Bill! Could you please try not to mess up EVERYTHING!”
ii. “Thank you for attempting that task Bill. Did you learn something? What can we do now to make the situation better?”
g. Loyalty
i. “Hey relieving CERT Leader; my team really sucks, so you’ll probably get more done.”
ii. “We had a lot of challenges today, but we accomplished a lot of good work.”
2. Visionary
Now that you have re-dedicated yourself to emphasizing the above personal qualities, it’s time to think about the vision for the team, the big picture, the destination, the end result, the final goal. An important quality of the leader is to always keep the big picture in mind and be working toward that. That end result will inform your technical decisions. Clearly communicating the end result to the team will keep everybody on the same page.
3. Decisive
Remember the CERT Nine Step Size-Up?
Gather Facts
Assess and Communicate Damage
Consider Probabilities
Assess Your Own Situation
Establish Priorities
Make Decisions
Develop a Plan of Action
Take Action
Evaluate Progress
None of those say to take a vote, or wait until everybody agrees, or abandon a plan at the first sign of challenge. So do the steps, Take Action, and move forward. Then you can Evaluate Progress and adjust future actions.
4. Delegation, Empowerment, Skill-Building
Remember… it’s a CERT team! Heck, it’s even in the name. The Greatest Good for the Greatest Number in the Least Time requires a team to accomplish. So don’t try to do it all yourself… delegate. When you delegate, then truly do empower that team member to make independent judgements and support them in those judgements (i.e. show loyalty). Use every opportunity to build new skills in team members, simulated and real-world incident responses.
5. Communication
Be deliberate and focused in your communication. Strive to make sure your message was understood. Be specific on your expectations, while empowering your team members and not micro-managing them. Which of these is the most effective?
a. “Search that building.”
b. “Do a quick assessment of the conditions inside that building. Report back to me in five minutes. That quick assessment will allow me to deploy resources most effectively.”
c. “Enter the building through the northwest door. Go inside ten steps. Write down on CERT Form 1 what you find. Then call out for survivors. If there are any that call back…” etc. etc. etc.
6. Technical Ability
Of course you have to be technically competent to gain the respect of your team members. You don’t have to be an expert, or the most technically-qualified onsite, but you do have to be proficient in CERT skills, procedures, and norms.

So in summary, take this quiz:
1. Are you a good person?
2. Can you work toward a goal?
3. Can you make decisions?
4. Can you work in a team?
5. Can you communicate?
6. Do you have CERT skills?

If you answered yes to all six, then YOU can be a great CERT leader!

Of course, after the fact, there will always be areas you wish you would have done better. There is always room for improvement. But know that no one expects a leader to have the perfect response at all times.

A more resilient Bellevue, and more effective Bellevue CERT needs YOU to be a great leader!

1. Whitten, Neal (1996). Attributes of the successful project manager. PM Network, 10(6), 29–35. https://www.pmi.org/learning/library/attributes-successful-project-manager-4797
2. Roseke, Bernie (September 6, 2019). 10 Qualities of a Project Leader, https://www.projectengineer.net/10-qualities-of-a-project-leader
3. Jones, Ta’Rikah (May 27, 2016). 11 Leadership Qualities of a Great Project Manager, https://www.brightwork.com/blog/11-leadership-qualities-of-a-great-project-manager