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Emergency Management Leadership Advice From a Foremost Expert


From American Public University System’s Great Leaders Inspire Series

From the United States to Haiti and around the world, Dr. Chris Reynolds’ emergency management experience provided rescue and relief to thousands of lives impacted by some of the worst natural and man-made disasters in modern history.

Combined with his military experience leading medical combat evacuations, Dr. Reynolds is a foremost expert in emergency response and preparedness education, serving today as American Public University System’s Dean of Academic Outreach and Program Development.

In Homeland Security recently talked with Dr. Reynolds about the value of knowledge through experience and what it means to lead from the front.

In Homeland Security: Your career spans many roles that took you around the world and through many experiences. How would you describe your career path?

Dr. Reynolds: I would describe my background as an eclectic mix of experiences that touch the practical world of emergency management, homeland security, disaster management, terrorism and anti-terrorism—as well as an academic component. This includes my own education working toward my master’s and doctorate. Together, these experiences led me to American Public University System.

Dr. Chris Reynolds
Dr. Chris Reynolds

Looking back, I spent about 34 years with a large fire rescue organization in the southeastern region of the U.S., while rising to the role of division chief. My career was blessed with opportunity that allowed me to serve in fire rescue as a paramedic, a firefighter, a fire officer and an emergency manager. Those actual years of experiences gave me the skill sets I have today. One thing that life teaches you is that you can’t teach experience. The only way to learn how is through application during real incidents and through trial and error.

During my career, I gained a commission through the U.S. Air Force Reserve as a second lieutenant in 1992, shortly after Operation Desert Storm. I served as an aeromedical evacuations operations officer, leading a squadron with the mission of airlifting combat casualties. I was mobilized and forward-deployed after the 9/11 attacks to Pakistan and Afghanistan, where I directly supported combat search and rescue operations, which was the movement of U.S. and coalition combat casualties. That gave me a great sense of pride not just in our nation, but in the mission we supported.

I also gained an appreciation as to how experiences can change one’s opinion or outlook. Where people are career-focused earlier in their lives, through experience they may become more family-focused or focused on an individual. Whether that person is a family member, a colleague or a student, it takes on a greater prominence.

Later in my Air Force career, I worked in disaster operations and disaster relief. Prior to that, I responded to the Oklahoma City bombing back in 1995 with FEMA working in the blast area. I was also sent to Haiti during Operation Uphold Democracy, working with the Haitians who were trying to secure their freedom from the Tonton Macoute who terrorized their civilians. I served as a first responder during numerous major hurricanes including Andrew and in 2005, Hurricane Katrina, in which evacuation operations moved several thousands of people from the metro New Orleans area.

Most Important Lessons Learned as a Leader in Emergency Management

In Homeland Security: Many of your humanitarian missions were extraordinarily challenging or performed under tumultuous circumstances. Afterwards, when you or your teams had a moment to reflect and assess the outcomes, what were some of the most important lessons you learned as a leader?

Dr. Reynolds: Through my experiences during each of my missions, the one thing I’ve learned as a leader is that every experience taught me humility. For anybody who came to me and professed that they were experts of something—I went in the other direction. There are no experts—period. Expertise is gained through years of experience. I will never claim to be an expert at anything. A practitioner, yes; an expert, never.

I learned my skills from experience and by taking bits and pieces of knowledge from the people I admired and who mentored me. They embodied the leadership traits that I wanted to have.

I learned an analogy years ago and use it in my own leadership training or mentoring that I do for others. The analogy is about pulling a rope. If you push a rope on a flat surface, it jumbles up, but if you pull a rope, it follows a straight line in a singular direction. I believe a good leader pulls, never pushes. By pulling, what I mean is that you set the example for your team. No matter what mission is being accomplished, you as a leader should not only be able to do the mission, but you should show others and involve them so that they can be put in your place.

I always had the opportunity to have people around me who were thirsty to learn and wanted to be involved. A good leader doesn’t necessarily take the team and say, “This is how we’re going to do it.” A leader lets people experiment to find out what the boundaries are, and supports them if mistakes are made by getting them back on course in the same sense that a navigator keeps a crew on course. Throughout my career, I’ve wanted to be an inspirational leader who led from the front.

The Characteristics of a True Leader

In Homeland Security: Leading from the front requires sustained consistency over time. Which characteristics do you feel best define a sustainable leader?

Dr. Reynolds: A sustainable leader, in my mind, is adaptable to change. It’s a leader who is aware of his or her environment. The sustainable leader has a pulse on the latest schools of thought, the science and technology, and their area of focus. It’s a leader who can anticipate change, but who is also not afraid to stand his or her ground in the face of change when it’s necessary. The leader may have a differing opinion, but he or she must also be willing to listen to opposing viewpoints and be open to negotiation. Ultimately, when the final decision is made, he or she is willing to get on board and support the mission.

In order to be sustainable, you have to have a team that has vision, and the way you gain vision is through the leader. That doesn’t mean the leader is the sole proprietor of the vision, but that the leader has the ability to pull all of the visions on the team forward and use it to demonstrate the strength of the team.

It’s almost like a synergistic effect. Sustainable leadership comes from someone who can recognize the strengths of others. In my mind, getting your team together and giving them opportunities to exercise their strengths, to appreciate the strengths of others, and to reward them—that is how I believe you inspire and sustain.

A leader who is first to take praise for the accomplishment is a poor leader in my mind. Just like a leader’s job is to take the punches, the leader’s job is to give opportunity and praise to the team. If your team fails, you don’t point fingers. You accept accountability, and that’s what my life taught me in both public safety and in the military. That’s the way I was taught to live my life and that’s what I’ve taught my family. Always give more than you receive.

Look out for Part 2 in this special emergency management series.


About Dr. Chris Reynolds
Dr. Chris Reynolds, CEM, has over 30 years of higher education experience in both the traditional and online classroom. He formerly served as the Director for the Emergency and Disaster Management and Homeland Security programs. He is a member of the International Association of Emergency Managers. Dr. Reynolds is also a recently retired Division Fire Chief and Emergency Manager with over 33 years of experience in a large metro-county fire-rescue organization.

His emergency management experience includes the Oklahoma City bombing; Hurricanes Andrew, Elena, Opal, and Katrina; the Haitian earthquake, and the Deepwater Horizon Gulf oil spill. Dr. Reynolds is a certified emergency manager (CEM) through the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM), a graduate of the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer Program (EFO), and a Chief Fire Officer Designee (CFO) through the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC). Additionally, he holds the Military Emergency Management Senior Specialist (MEMS) badge. Dr. Reynolds served over 21 years in the U.S. Air Force Reserve and retired as a Lieutenant Colonel.



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