Become a better leader in crisis

In You’re It, the faculty of NPLI at Harvard take you to the front lines of some of the toughest situations facing leaders at the world’s largest companies, government agencies, and nonprofits. The authors introduce readers to the pragmatic model and methods of Meta-Leadership. They show you how to understand what is happening during a moment of crisis and change, what to do about it, and how to hone these skills to lead teams that perform well every day and when turbulence hits. You’re It is essential reading for anyone preparing to lead an adaptive team through crisis and change.

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Papers included here have been researched, written, and published by NPLI faculty in collaboration with subject matter experts in various fields.

How can senior executives be an asset to their organization when a crisis strikes? Preparing for a crisis well ahead of time with well prepared plans that have been drilled and exercised with employees is critical. Something everyone knows needs to be done yet sometimes becomes a low priority and then a crisis strikes. The ability of the executive to give directives according to the plans goes awry.

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By: Dr. Brian Spisak, Associate Researcher with the NPLI program, Ingrid van de Leemput, Marten Scheffer, Yuwei Liu.

Prioritizing short-term cost/benefit over mid- and long-term preparedness leads to multiple, overlapping crises. This chaos is hard to keep track of and society tends to focus on one problem or the other. Instead, society needs to focus on “systemic sustainability” where a diverse group of people from climate activists to health care watchdogs collectively demand preparedness over short-term cost and benefit.

Just published on Plos One and picked up by the national press.

By: Eric J. McNulty, Brian R. Spisak, Jennifer O. Grimes with research support from Lyndon Byrd and Chloe Demrovsky

The criticality of rapid, deep learning. The need for empathic leadership. The benefits of treating preparedness as investment rather than a cost. These are three of the findings of research with nine global companies on cross-sector lessons learned through the Covid-19 response conducted by NPLI researchers along with partners from Disaster Recovery Institute International. Download your copy and use it to inform your planning for 2022 and beyond.

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By: Brian R. Spisak, Eric J. McNulty

There are increasing calls for issuing COVID-19 testing and vaccination status certificates as a way out of broad stay-at-home orders. Done well, such an approach could confer significant benefits, including a rapid transition to the “next normal,” with many more individuals able to socialize and work. However, this fair price can come with hidden costs. Done poorly, testing- and vaccination-based regimes could set a precedent for distinct classes of people based on their perceived health risk and access to vaccination. Biases and discrimination against racial minorities, who have been disproportionally affected by COVID-19, could increase. Failure to get a certification could also become a badge of shame. The authors offer an alternative, prosocial approach.

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By: Brian R. Spisak, Joseph Spisak, Andrew Trask

Large-scale threats to society like the impact of climate change and COVID-19 will continue to disrupt society, and lead to, as the International Monetary Fund puts it, “wartime policy measures.” This will likely trigger extreme actions where government agencies use AI and access citizen data in ways that threaten privacy and other civil liberties. Combining “wartime” threats with data-informed capabilities can also lead to data sharing policies and practices biased in favor of quick fixes – for example, the Covid-19 tracking apps inadvertently providing identifying information of infected individuals. Recent AI and data-informed policy measures highlight the need for privacy preserving approaches to data-informed policy while also incorporating sufficient domain expertise to minimize biased and unfair interventions.

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Authors: Dr. Leonard J. Marcus, Ph.D.; Dr. Barry C. Dorn, M.D., M.H.C.M.; Joseph Henderson, M.P.A.; Eric J. McNulty, M.A.

Large organizations and the work they accomplish are becoming less hierarchical and more reliant on complex and inter-dependent connections with other entities. Leading in such an environment requires expanded thinking and activity beyond one’s formal bounds of authority. Meta-leadership is a theoretically robust and pragmatically useful evidence-based framework and practice method for generating widespread influence and cohesive action that expands the leader’s domain of engagement, leverage, and efficacy.

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By: Leonard J. Marcus, Eric J. McNulty, Lisa B. Flynn, Joseph M. Henderson, Peter V. Neffenger, Richard Serino, Jacob Trenholm

Among the most critical challenges crisis leaders face is evaluating “the situation”—what is happening and what to do about it. Extensive scholarship on Situational Awareness (SA) has identified a gap: a disciplined process for achieving accurate SA. Further, SA only addresses the first half of that situation equation; awareness is necessary, yet not sufficient, unless linked to and integrated with meaningful decisions and actions. The POP-DOC Loop is a six-step SA tool that combines analysis and action into a continuous process. The analytic side is Perceive, Orient, Predict. The Action side is Decide, Operationalize, Communicate. POP-DOC builds upon Boyd’s Observe, Orient, Decide, Act, or OODA Loop. OODA evolves from and focuses upon military command-and-control contexts, though it is applied in other settings as well. The advance design of POP-DOC incorporates a wider range of human factors, including neuro- and decision science research, in order to equip leaders to build SA in high-stress, high-stakes, evolving, and unpredictable situations.

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By: Eric J. McNulty, M.A.; Barry C. Dorn, M.D., M.H.P.M.; Eric Goralnick, M.D., M.S.; Richard Serino; Jennifer O. Grimes, M.D. candidate; Lisa Flynn, J.D., M.P.H.; Melanie Cheers, M.D., and Leonard J. Marcus, Ph.D.

To explicate the qualities of cooperation among leaders and their organizations during crisis, we studied the response to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. Through interviews and analysis, we discovered leaders successfully overcame obstacles that typically undermine collective crisis response. Qualitative analysis revealed five guiding behavioral principles that appeared to stimulate effective inter-agency leadership collaboration in high stakes. We draw upon concepts of collective leadership and swarm intelligence to interpret our observations and translate the findings into leader practices. We focus on replicable aspects of a meta-phenomenon, where collective action was greater than the sum of its parts; we do not evaluate individual leader behavior. Our findings provide a starting point for deeper exploration of how to bolster public safety by catalyzing enhanced inter-agency leadership behavior.

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By: Godelieve Hofstee, Paul G.W. Jansen, Annet H. De Lange, Brian Spisak, Maaike Swinkels

In our increasingly service-based world, employees are now, more than ever before, required to manage the emotional demands inherent to client interactions. These emotional demands can be fueled by emotional display rules that are part of an organizational policy. However, what differentiates client interactions from other circumstances is that not only emotional performance standards should be met but also concurrent cognitive performance standards. In some professions, lives may even depend on the interplay between both kinds of performance. This systematic review is the first to offer a systematic synthesis of the surprisingly limited number of studies on this emotion–cognition relationship.

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By: Eric J. McNulty, Barry C. Dorn, Richard Serino, Eric Goralnick, Jennifer O. Grimes, Lisa B. Flynn, Srinivasan S. Pillay, and Leonard J. Marcus

Recent advances in neuroscience and psychology research (“brain science”) provide a fruitful avenue for developing approaches to leadership development. Literature on the application of these advances to crisis leadership is sparse, despite significant neurological and psychological dimensions of crisis response scenarios. The current study analyzed the nature of perceived impact of leader behavior on outcomes in crisis management systems such as the Incident Command System (ICS) and National Incident Management System (NIMS), and explored the extent to which brain science principles are integrated into ICS/NIMS training. Analysis of survey data from a sample of 198 crisis leaders revealed that observed leader behaviors was related to ICS/NIMS performance and that typical ICS/NIMS training fails to address the behavioral aspects of crisis leadership. To address the identified deficiency, a training model incorporating brain science into crisis leadership training systems is suggested. Further research is recommended to better determine the impact of incorporating neuroscience and psychology research into formal crisis leadership training and to further evaluate effective measurement and teaching tools.

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By: Leonard J. Marcus, Ph.D; Col. (ret.) Ronald Banks.; Eric J. McNulty, M.A.; Richard Serino; and Lisa Flynn, J.D., M.P.H.

The report presents the results of a one-day symposium co-hosted by he United States Air Force Air University’s Cyber College collaborated with the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative (NPLI), a joint program of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Convened at the Cambridge campus of Harvard University on August 2, 2016. The meeting built upon a two-year study into improving collaborative public-private cyber security strategy led by NPLI executive education participants, the dialogue was designed to forge new cross-sector connections and provoke fresh thinking regarding the defense of U.S. critical infrastructure from cyber-enabled malicious activity. The meeting included 47 participants: 22 from the private sector, including financial communications and technology companies; 17 from the federal government, including the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, Department of the Treasury, Department of Justice and National Security Agency; 3 from the non-profit sector; and 5 academics.

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By: Leonard J. Marcus, Ph.D; Eric M. McNulty, M.A.; Barry C. Dorn, M.D., M.H.C.M.; Eric Goralnick, M.D.

The Boston Marathon Bombings required leaders of many agencies – scattered over numerous jurisdictions and with different authorities and priorities – to rapidly respond together to an unknown and complex set of risks, decisions, and actions. This report analyzes their leadership through the event. It seeks to understand how they were able to effectively lead an operation with remarkable results. These outcomes are measured in lives saved, suspects quickly captured, public confidence maintained, and population resilience fostered. These leaders were observed to exhibit “Swarm Intelligence,” a phenomenon in which no one is in charge and yet, with all following the same principles and rules, leaders are able to accomplish more together than any one leader could have achieved separately.

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By: Leonard J. Marcus, Ph.D; Barry C. Dorn, M.D., M.H.C.M.; Joseph M. Henderson, M.P.A.

Abstract: Effective emergency preparedness and response requires leadership that can accomplish perceptive coordination and communication amongst diverse agencies and sectors. Nevertheless, operating within their specified scope of authority, preparedness leaders in characteristic bureaucratic fashion often serve to bolster the profile and import of their own organization, thereby creating a silo effect that interferes with effective systemwide planning and response. This article describes a strategy to overcome traditional silo thinking: “meta-leadership,” overarching leadership that intentionally connects the purposes and work of different organizations or organizational units. Thinking and operating beyond their immediate scope of authority, meta-leaders provide guidance, direction, and momentum across organizational lines that develop into a shared course of action and a commonality of purpose among people and agencies that are doing what may appear to be very different work. Meta-leaders are able to imaginatively and effectively leverage system assets, information, and capacities, a particularly critical function for organizations with emergency preparedness responsibilities that are constrained by ingrained bureaucratic patterns of behavior.

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Case Histories

Our case histories span a variety of national and local crisis. NPLI faculty have led the research and study of leaders involved in these events and documented the crisis situation and lessons learned into case histories. These case histories can be used as teaching points for those professionals interested in improving their leader skill set and students looking to enter into the field of preparedness and response.

The 2017 Hurricane Season

The 2017 hurricane season left mass destruction in its path, with devasting impacts in the southern United States, Puerto Rico, Caribbean islands, and parts of South America. The season included 17 tropical storms and 10 hurricanes with 6 of those a category 3 or higher…

The Ebola Crisis 2014

The 2014 Ebola outbreak was one of the most significant public health crises in recent history. On March 25, 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced a reported outbreak of Ebola hemorrhagic fever in four southeastern districts of Guinea, West Africa, with additional suspected cased in neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone…

Civil Unrest in Ferguson, Missouri 2014-2015

On August 9, 2014 shortly after 12:00 pm, an unarmed black teenager was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. The 18-year-old, Micheal Brown died a the scene; the officer Darren Wilson was working for the Ferguson Police Department at the time…

Response to the Boston Marathon Bombing

During the week of April 15-19, 2013, two major crises truck the Boston metropolitan area. On Monday, April 15th, two improvised explosive devices detonated near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people, and injuring 264…

Tropical Storm Irene

Several NPLI alumni were involved in the response to Tropical Storm Irene through their service in the Vermont National Guard. This report captures the leadership lessons from this experience. Interviewed for this report were Brigadier General Dick Harris (cohort IV), Colonel Terry Lambert (cohort VII), Colonel John Boyd, Lieutenant Col. Dwight DeCoster, and Major Jason Pelletier…

Response to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

On April 20, 2010 there was an explosion on the ultra-deepwater drilling rig Deepwater Horizon (also known as Mississippi Canyon 252). Eleven workers were killed. Two days later, the rig sank, triggering an oil leak that spewed an estimated 5,000 barrels of oil per day into the Gulf of Mexico and heralding a potential environmental and economic disaster that could affect that states of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas…

2010 Massachusetts Water Emergency

On May 1, 2010 the 10” wide pipe that carried fresh water from reservoirs into Boston and its surrounding communities burst. While the flow to the tap was never interrupted, the break made it necessary for as many as 700,000 households, comprising two million people, to boil their water before drinking it. The break was called “catastrophic” and Governor Deval Patrick declared a state of emergency. When the rupture occurred, the projected time to repair the leak was indeterminate although expectations were set as days, not hours…

2009 H1N1 Pandemic

In March 2009, a new strain of influenza, H1N1, appeared in Mexico and spread to the United States. The first confirmed case was of a nine-year-old girl in Imperial County, California (March 30). By April 18, seven cases had been confirmed in the U.S. and influenza activity was reported in several states. On April 23rd, the Health Service of Canada confirmed that the strains in the U.S. and Mexico had the same genetic sequence…

2008 Republican National Convention

In September 2008, the Republican National Committee held its Presidential nominating convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN. The convention was designated a National Special Security Event (NSSE) and was held in the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. An NSSE is designated by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) when a major event is thought to have a high potential for a terrorist attack or other security incident. The designation puts the Secret Service in charge of overall event security…

2008 Democratic National Convention

In August 2008 the Democratic National Committee held its Presidential nominating convention in Denver, Colorado. Five NPLI participants were involved in the activities related to the convention..

2008 Iowa Floods

The Iowa floods of 2008 were the fifth largest disaster in U.S. history up to that time. Davenport, Iowa has nine miles of waterfront and, having chosen not to build a structural levee, is subject to periodic flooding. It is the only city of its size or larger without a permanent levee system…

Aviation Public Health Initiative (APHI)

The Aviation Public Health Initiative (APHI) studied aircraft, airline, and airport practices and their impact on public health during the COVID-19 pandemic. A team of environmental, infectious disease and social scientists assembled by the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative reviewed current research as well as analyses conducted by the industry. The findings report on strategies and tactics to reduce risks of disease transmission during air travel.

APHI Phase Two Report – Airports read more

APHI Phase Two Highlights

Harvard APHI Phase Two Report

Checklist for Airport Travelers and Employees

Checklist for Aircraft Passengers and Crew

Interview with Dr. Leonard Marcus on APHI Phase Two Report

Interview with Dr. John Spengler on APHI Phase Two Report

Interview with Dr. Wendy Purcell on APHI Phase Two Report

October 27, 2020: Researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (APHI) Release Phase One “Gate-to-Gate” Report of SARS CoV-2 Transmission and Risk Mitigation While Flying.

Researchers with the Aviation Public Health Initiative (APHI), a project of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, today released Phase One of its ongoing research on strategies and practices to reduce the public health risks of flying during the COVID-19 pandemic. Read more

Phase One Report Highlights

HSPH APHI Phase One Report

Interview with Dr. Leonard Marcus on APHI Phase One Report

Interview with Dr. John Spengler on APHI Phase One Report

Disinfection Bulletin

Disinfecting the cabin is part of a multi-layered aviation public health risk-reduction strategy. Read more about disinfection

Face Masks Bulletin

The role of face masks in preventing COVID-19 infection during air travel. Read more about face masks

September 2, 2020: Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health Researchers Studying SARS CoV-2 Transmission and Risk Mitigation While Flying.

In order to provide evidence-based recommendations on strategies and practices to reduce the public health risks of flying during the COVID-19 pandemic, faculty at  Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health are conducting research to improve understanding of measures that reduce risks of SARS-CoV-2 transmission in the aviation system.

More Resources for You

The CEO Can’t Afford to Panic (HBR Case Study)

By: Eric J. McNulty

Abstract: When a bomb explodes in a train station in Boston, the executive team of a financial services firm across the street is plunged into crisis mode. No one is prepared for the city’s request to use the firm’s lobby as a triage center and temporary morgue. The CEO’s instinct is to say yes, but as his team debates the consequences—liability issues, the effect on traumatized employees—he realizes just how complicated a decision it is.

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Educational Videos

NPLI posts numerous educational videos on our YouTube channel These include, introductions to the Dimensions of Meta-Leadership, Swarm Leadership, Ethical Decisions, and more. Below is an overview of Meta-Leadership.