by Eric McNulty, Leonard Marcus, and Barry Dorn
Just three years ago we wrote a case study for Harvard Business Review based on a terror attack in our home city of Boston. That abstract, fictional situation has now come to painful life.
At the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative at Harvard, we study crisis leadership in many settings. We have seen graphic photos and heard compelling testimony about terror attacks around the world. Even for us, the horrific scenes of the carnage at the Boston Marathon yesterday are difficult to push out of our minds.
In the fictional case study we wrote, there was an explosion in the subway and a business leader had to decide whether or not to let his building be used as a triage center and temporary morgue. The expert advice was unanimous: in times of crisis, civic duty trumps private interests. Yesterday, the city of Boston resoundingly agreed: we saw many people step up to selflessly help others. Whether or not they would call themselves “leaders” at all, many did offer leadership.
It is in difficult times like these that we are hungriest for leadership, for people who can restore order, find the perpetrators, organize the aftermath, and help us find meaning and common purpose. People are wounded, whether physically or emotionally. Even those who only watched the events on television can feel the effects. Leaders, too, are affected — they’re only human. But leadership moments come unexpectedly for each of us.
Fortunately here, it seems that careful preparation helped civic leaders improvise a swift and effective response to the unthinkable. Boston officials have used past marathons and the city’s annual Fourth of July celebration to develop, exercise, and test their preparedness plans. They had also had been at the forefront of the Tale of Our Cities program, an outgrowth of a class project at the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative that brought officials from London, Madrid, Islamabad, and Israel to share their experience with terrorist bombings. The city absorbed these lessons and modified its plans accordingly. For example, providing effective medical treatment in the aftermath of a mass casualty bombing is distinctly different from a more typical disaster such as multiple car collision. Multiple law enforcement agencies may see every patient as a possible “person of interest,” many physicians have limited experience with blast injuries, and the walking wounded can overwhelm the nearest healthcare facilities. Without careful preparation, leaders may do exactly the wrong thing while trying to do the right thing.
Every crisis is potentially two crises: the original event and the response to the incident. When leadership remains calm and composed, they can help avoid turning the reaction to the crisis into a secondary disaster. In this case, the response was sure and swift. In Boston, effective preparation and in-the-moment leadership kept a terrible tragedy from descending into chaos that could well have resulted in more injuries, greater loss of life, and the possible destruction of evidence. Medical professionals, police, and race volunteers provided immediate aid. The professionals called upon long-rehearsed responses and were able nimbly organize bystanders and volunteers. The area was cleared quickly and efficiently.
But leadership at a time like this is not just about the careful preparations and emergency improvisations of civic leaders and emergency responders. It’s about being the leader your followers need, no matter your position or your title.
People will mirror your behavior: Project calm and they will be composed. Demonstrate resolve and they will be strong. Be empathetic and they will support each other…and you.
We all go to the “emotional basement” in the face of a threat. It is an instinctual survival mechanism that serves us well when confronted with danger. However, the basement is not a place to dwell. Getting back to business as usual is a path up from the basement. Engaging in activities at which people can demonstrate basic competence helps “reset” the brain to a more productive mode.
It can be easy to get caught up in “what if” scenarios that bedevil leaders with potential threats around every corner. This is, unfortunately, the world in which we live. Random violence is possible and increasingly probable if not precisely predictable.
Nothing can bring back the victims or undo the injuries resulting from the violence in Boston. It is the job of leaders to help us see beyond the tragedy and pain, and heal. You must attend to collective resilience so that organizations and communities rapidly recover from tragedy. You encounter many people in any given day; take a day to slow down and connect with every single person you meet. Use their names. Ask about how the day is going. Try to meaningfully connect with each and every one of them. As Admiral Thad Allen said in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, collateral compassion is a good thing.
It is your opportunity to help others realize their strength and find hope in the darkness
Eric McNulty, Leonard Marcus, and Barry Dorn: Eric McNulty, Leonard Marcus, and Barry Dorn are faculty at the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, a joint program of the Harvard School of Public Health and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. They are co-authors of the forthcoming book, You’re It! Mastering High Stakes Leadership.