From the events of 9/11 to the more recent experience of the 2005 Gulf Coast Hurricanes, major catastrophic crises have imposed new and historic challenges to this country. The first demonstrated our vulnerability and the second the complexity of responding to a massive disaster, despite all that had been done to build the infrastructure to do so. Central to these events is the question of leadership: how people in responsible positions prepared for, responded to, and reacted to these unprecedented events.
In 2003, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approached Harvard University to address these leadership questions. We recognized the extraordinary value in linking our academic endeavors to the people and problems at the frontiers of the rapidly emerging homeland security infrastructure so that we would integrate theory and practice. The desire to contribute our intellectual energies to this quickly evolving national imperative required us to build the robust research base, deep relationships, and credible convening platform that would be support and fortify decision makers before, during, and after subsequent crises that would face the country.
We launched the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative as a joint program of Harvard Kennedy School and the Harvard School of Public Health. The shared mission of the NPLI faculty is to raise the bar on preparedness and response leadership, increasing the quality and quantity of leaders able to meet these evolving challenges. Our central themes are leadership and population health: protecting the people whose lives and well being are so directly at stake in moments of crisis. Convening shortly after Hurricane Katrina to share what we had learned, the importance of leaders and leadership in the face of such unprecedented events became increasingly evident.
Protecting our homeland against terrorism and natural threats requires leaders able to effectively build connectivity of effort, reaching across government, business, and non-profit organizations whose efforts — when combined — offer the best protection for our country. We term such people “meta-leaders,” leaders of leaders whose commitment, influence, and capabilities build critical cohesion in times of crisis. While it may not be possible to deter every threat, national recovery and resilience depends upon these meta-leaders and their extraordinary presence of mind, skills and talents.
We are proud to note that graduates of our Executive Education program have been in key leadership roles for preparation for response to many large-scale events including Presidential inaugurations, the H1N1 pandemic, and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill among many others. The Meta-leadership Summits for Preparedness have helped build critical connectivity in more than 20 population centers across the country. The Tale of Our Cities Programs have brought international experts in urban terrorism together to share best practices and lessons learned. And our Partners in Preparedness delegations to Israel have enabled leaders from the United States to gain valuable insights from their Israeli peers about population resilience.
It continues to be an honor and privilege for the NPLI and to work with, study, and share our knowledge in collaboration with the people who shoulder these enormous national responsibilities.
Leonard Marcus and David Gergen
National Preparedness Leadership Initiative