NSSE Study Continues at 2013 Inauguration

The ongoing study of National Special Security Events (NSSEs() by the NPLI continued with a trip by Leonard Marcus, NPLI founding co-director, and Eric McNulty, NPLI senior associate, to the 2013 Presidential Inauguration. The NSSE designation makes the U.S. Secret Service accountable for overall event security.  However, because of the agency’s limited size and resources, it cannot provide that security itself; it must coordinate and collaborate with a wide range of federal, state, and local entities. NPLI faculty also studied the two 2008 national conventions and 2009 inauguration.

“Working with the Secret Service provides an ideal window into both the challenges and benefits of meta-leadership,” said Marcus. “We are deeply grateful for the opportunity.” Marcus and McNulty were guests of the Secret Service for the Inauguration. Several agents have participated in the NPLI executive education program and Director Mark Sullivan has been a guest lecturer on several occasions.

In an early morning meeting with Director Sullivan, Marcus and McNulty learned of his strategy for the day. He wanted his senior team in the field, not clustered in secure operations centers. “I told them to get out to the event. Shake hands. Make decisions. Make it happen.” This was an extension of his general leadership style: set clear expectations and empower people to meet or exceed them.

Sullivan explained that the agency had to worry about high risk threats — terrorists, for example — as well as more mundane challenges inherent in any large-scale public event: crowd flow, pedestrian interactions with vehicles, and access to first aid if needed. Tens of thousands of ticket holders would have to be screened  and then directed to designated areas on the Capitol grounds while hundreds of thousands of others would congregate on the National Mall and along Pennsylvania Avenue.

By “shake hands” Sullivan meant that he wanted his people interacting with the other agencies as well as the public. The District of Columbia poses particular challenges because of the many jurisdictions involved in a major event. For example,  the Capitol grounds are the jurisdiction of the Capitol Police, the public streets are the jurisdiction of the Municipal Police, and the National Mall is the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. By “make decisions” he meant that his agents should assert direction and, if necessary, take control where needed. In the end, the Secret Service would be accountable for success or failure. “Make it happen” meant a seamless experience for the citizens attending the event.

Knowing this, Marcus and McNulty also headed to the field. Escorted by Special Agent Paul Morrissey, they visited a number of locations including inflow security screening areas, pedestrian crossings along the Pennsylvania Avenue motorcade route, and the Capitol grounds. Morrissey seemed to know someone everywhere they traveled — both senior officials and front line workers. When asked if these were people he worked with often, Morrissey replied that he had met many as he walked the event site in the days leading up to the Inauguration. “I want to know who they are, and I want them to know who I am,” he said.

They soon saw Sullivan’s strategy in action. Parts of Pennsylvania Avenue is closed all day to accommodate the Inauguration. It was the route for the motorcade and parade after the President takes the oath of office. Before that, however, it was both a key pedestrian crossing onto the Capitol grounds and the route for buses transporting VIP guests to the Capitol building and other vehicles. Each vehicle required stopping pedestrian crossings; a convoy of buses stopped crossings for several minutes which in turn caused a significant back up of  pedestrians.

Seeing this, Morrissey went to the Capitol Police sergeant at the crossing to expedite crossings between vehicles. Morrissey had no direct authority but he was able to exert influence by engaging the sergeant in joint problem solving — he said, “Let’s solve this,” helped direct pedestrians, and stuck around to provide cover with the sergeant’s supervisor as needed. He never issued and order and never did he have to because of the way that he approached the situation.

“We were able to hear Director Sullivan articulate a strategy and then see Special Agent Morrissey embody it,” said Marcus. “You may not think that crowd control is what a Secret Service agent should be doing but it is critical. People came to see the Inauguration ceremony and the  Secret Service had to both ensure dignitary security as well as the quality of the event for the average citizen. It is a difficult balance.”

“More than one agent remarked that the Director “got it” when it came to leadership and it was clear that they got his strategy as well,” noted McNulty. “There was terrific vertical connectivity. In the interactions with the other agencies, we saw horizontal connectivity as well. This is what we mean by saying that meta-leaders lead up, down, and across simultaneously.”

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