Making Tough Calls: Meta-Leadership for Critical Decisions

On 29 September 2016, DomPrep, in collaboration with Harvard’s National Preparedness Leadership Initiative (NPLI), hosted a roundtable at the Harvard Faculty Club in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on “Leadership: Decision Science.” This article summarizes that discussion, which was moderated by Eric McNulty, NPLI director of Research and Professional Programs, and Richard Serino, NPLI distinguished visiting fellow.

Emergency management and resilience professionals responsible for making critical decisions during high-consequence events require leadership skills beyond those of traditional management. These professionals are required to make difficult decisions daily – from allocating resources to making choices with life-and-death consequences. Decision science best practices are rarely shared and incorporated into leadership development. The National Preparedness Leadership Initiative (NPLI) at Harvard University has developed a program that equips leaders with skills, knowledge, and abilities required to effectively lead during crisis events in the 21st century. By connecting diverse leaders with national, regional, and local responsibilities, the NPLI provides a forum for these leaders to convene and discuss current challenges to better improve preparedness.

The NPLI institutional base conducts qualitative and quantitative research to better equip leaders with tools to address the rapidly evolving challenges faced in the field of preparedness and resilience. Roundtable participants were comprised of NPLI alumni and individuals from multidiscipline backgrounds to include the American Red Cross, Boston Fire Department, Boston Emergency Medical Services, Department of Health and Human Services, Cambridge Police Department, Massachusetts State Police, Department of Homeland Security, Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, private sector, NPLI faculty, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and others.

Framing the Conversation

Eric McNulty began the discussion by providing the framework and methodology of NPLI’s three dimensions of meta-leadership:

  1. The Person: Meta-leaders develop high self-awareness, self-knowledge, and self-regulation. They build the capacity to confront fear and lead themselves and others out of the “emotional basement” to high levels of thinking and functioning.
  2. The Situation: With often incomplete information, the meta-leader maps the situation to determine what is happening, who are the stakeholders, what is likely to happen next, and what are the critical choice points and options for action.
  3. Connectivity: The meta-leader charts a course forward, making decisions, operationalizing those decisions, and communicating effectively to recruit wide engagement and support.

Important pieces of the decision-making conversation are the psychological and neurological factors that leaders employ and experience during high-stakes environments. The “head,” “heart,” and “gut” are all intrinsic human aspects to the decision-making process. McNulty expounded that the “head” considers the analytical and quantitative components of a situation, the “heart” examines the “moral dimensions and ethical dimensions” of a decision, while the “gut” examines the intuitive nature of decision-making.

Finally, decisions need to be examined through the domains in which they are made: operational, political, and ethical. Richard Serino explained, “Most of the decisions we make initially are operational, what do we have to do to get the job done, to do it now, and where do we have to go… but then…how does [the presence of politicians] influence the decision-making process as a leader?” Serino went on to explain the attributes of a good leader is the ability to lead not only down, but lead up and lead across, and foster relationships with the multitude of people that emergency managers will work with is integral in accomplishing the necessary tasks during a crisis. The ethical component is dealing with the challenges of knowing that the right decision was made even when that choice was unpopular.

The framework of the meta-leadership and decision science outlined above provided the lens for which the following conversations examined the aspects of the success and failures in the existing system as applied and seen in recent emergencies and disasters.

Examination of Leadership Applications in Past Crises: Successes & Failures

To determine the best strategies to deploy during an emergency, it is necessary to first examine the successes and failures of decisions from past crises. The multijurisdictional and multidisciplinary make-up of the participants yielded a variety of real-life examples to include: the Orlando shooting incident in June 2016; the Brigham and Women Hospital shooting incident in January 2015; Boston Marathon bombings in April 2013; Worcester, Massachusetts, fire incident of December 1999; and a multitude of hurricanes and other natural disasters. Through each discussion prevalent themes continued to arise: recovery efforts, identification of the desired outcome, flexibility in policy and training by examining the “what” versus the “why,” communication across agencies, and public empowerment.

The recovery component of an incident is comprised of a diverse set of needs and each is essential in the overall recovery of a community after an incident. Serino explained that, “The reality is we don’t plan for recovery…we don’t spend that much time and effort and certainly not money.” An important shift needs to occur, one that will be difficult until the spending and planning for recovery efforts increase. Response and recovery departments are often separated from one another, and in the larger organizations, do not know one another. Successful recovery efforts are those that support the community to rebuild itself to feel safe again. For example, after the Orlando shooting incident one of the main recovery issues was to ensure that the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) community felt safe again. It is essential that resources are allocated to prepare for the recovery post incident and not just focused on the response to an incident.

Successful decisions are made during an emergency when the stakeholders and emergency managers collaborate and pause for a moment to determine the desired outcome. Coupling decisions and outcomes creates a clearer strategy eliminating extemporaneous steps that do not lead to final desired outcomes. McNulty emphasized that different people and different organizations are making decisions during crises that are not synchronistic, and creating a structure so that the multiple stakeholders are making decisions aligned with the desired outcome in mind can assist in a situation.

Training is integral to quick response during an incident and requires the cooperation of public and private sectors. Exercising protocols develops muscle memory that allows emergency professionals to react quickly, but it is essential that the training is conducted in a way that allows for flexibility during an incident. Sometimes emergency managers are faced with unlearning what they have practiced as shifting in the moment will produce a better outcome. McNulty stated that it is important to examine “what goes into the protocol… but understanding the why because the context has most likely shifted from when the policy was set, to the situation you are facing now.” A meaningful after action report will focus on the “what” and “why” components of a decision and can inform future policy. One of the noted successes is the eagerness of professionals to learn from one another, and well-developed after action reports provides an avenue for future learning.

Public engagement and public empowerment can provide individuals with the tools necessary during an event. The “Stop the Bleed” and “Run. Hide. Fight.©” campaigns are examples of public empowerment that has gained publicity as active shooter incidents have become more prevalent. Serino expressed that, “Leadership is giving your people permission (the professionals)…but also giving the public permission to be part of the response.” Israel instituted a high school program that requires all students to complete a search and rescue training, and the number of lives saved has increased exponentially because it provides the public the necessary tools to make a difference. The public will act based on the way they think is best for the situation at hand; empower the public by providing them with the tools and options for a way to act that will help not hinder the emergency response.

Improving Collective Decision-Making Capacity

Improving collective decision-making capacity needs to begin at the leadership level. Increasing the amount of diversity among leaders and teams will increase the collective knowledge base among those individuals working together. Diverse backgrounds and gender differences yield different opinions and ways of examining an issue. The demographics of the emergency management community are slowly evolving, and the leadership and teams need to reflect those changes to maximize their collective intelligence. The decision-making chain should be automatic during an event without ignoring the collaboration culture.

There is a difference between education and training. Providing the general public and all responsible for response during a disaster the education affords them the skills to evoke rational thought, whereas training is a learned experience. Training has benefits in muscle memory and habits, but these can be detrimental during an event where flexibility is required. Working with solutions instead of stringent policies in effect can lead to elasticity and provide team members the ability to rely on their education. Leaders need to identify the difference between order and control during an emergency, as control can hinder order. Part of the education process is allowing team members to function in their roles on a daily basis, allowing for more fluidity of responsibility during an event.

Key Takeaways & Recommendations for the Next Generation of Leaders

  • It is necessary to allow the experts to do their job. As a leader, it is important not to impede their work or cause them to change their behavior.
  • In a reactionary world, take the time to think before acting.
  • Empower staff, as it takes a team to respond during an emergency.
  • Routines are developed over time, and it is essential to train how these needs shift in emergencies. Create the habit of changing habits when necessary.
  • Embrace exercises and continue to break down barriers to foster relationships with a variety of subject matter experts.
  • Be the conductor, surrounded with people who are willing to provide honest, diverse opinions in high-stakes situations.
  • Focus actions on the desired outcomes.
  • Be an informed leader.
  • Build trust among the team because effective collaboration is the only way to successfully respond to an emergency.
  • Do not underestimate the value of the public and the experience they can bring to an issue.
  • View leadership as a responsibility instead of a job.
  • Provide honest evaluation and mitigation ideas for after action reports.
  • Talk less and listen more.
  • Indecision is a decision. Do not be afraid to make a decision. It may not solve the whole problem, but it is a step in the process.
  • Find opportunities to be a good leader, never let a good crisis go to waste because they provide an opportunity to exercise leadership skills that are not available daily.
  • Lead, follow, or get out of the way.
  • Make a decision based on facts and intelligence, not popularity.
  • Never stop learning, and take the time to continue educational efforts.
  • Be prepared to be surprised.

Special thanks to the following roundtable participants who contributed to the above discussion:

Geoff BartlettDirector of Emergency Management, Tufts University

Suzanne BlakeManager of Emergency Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

Robert BradleyConsultant, Global Preparedness and Crisis Management, Center for Toxicology & Environmental Health

Kathryn BrinsfieldAssistant Secretary and Chief Medical Officer, Department of Homeland Security

Bill ChristiansenDirector of Aviation Security, Massachusetts State Police

Greg CiottoneAssociate Professor of Emergency Medicine, Harvard Medical School

Marcy DonnellyActing Federal Security Officer, Transportation Security Administration (TSA)

Joe DugganMajor, Massachusetts State Police

Joseph FinnCommissioner, Boston Fire Department

Paul FordActing Regional Administrator, Region 1, FEMA

Ed GabrielPrincipal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Department of Health and Human Services

Eric GoralnickDirector of Emergency Preparedness, Brigham and Women’s Hospital

Kay GossPresident, World Disaster Management

Jim HooleyChief, Boston EMS

Brenden KearneySuperintendent in Chief, Boston EMS

Brad KiesermanVice President for Disaster Operations and Logistics, American Red Cross

Dan LinskeyManaging Director of Investigations, Kroll Investigations

Tom LockwoodCyber Security, Preparedness Leadership Council

Joe ManousInternational Activities Manager, Institute for Water Resources, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Ignacio Martinez-MoyanoLead, Behavioral & System Dynamics Section, Social & Behavioral Systems Group, Argonne National Laboratory

Suzet McKinneyExecutive Director, Illinois Medical District Commission

Eric McNultyDirector of Research and Professional Programs, NPLI

Chris RobichaudProfessor, Harvard Kennedy School

Andrew SchwartzHarvard University

Kurt SchwartzDirector, Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency

Richard SerinoDistinguished Visiting Faculty, NPLI

Alan SnowDirector of Safety and Security, Boston Properties

Carl SpetzlerChairman, SDG Group

Bill Van SchalkwykDirector of Emergency Management, Harvard University

Wendy WalshProgram Manager, FEMA’s Higher Education and Executive Academy Programs

Kerri Kline

Kerri Kline joined the DomPrep Team in June 2016. As the program manager, she is responsible for business development for DomPrep’s publications, as well as assisting with conferences, roundtables, executive briefings, and workshops. With more than eight years of experience in marketing and production, she facilitates DomPrep’s advertising and marketing campaigns.



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