Leading through Crisis and Empowering Meta-Leaders: Lessons from Cohort XVI

Harvard's National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, Cohort XVI, June 2018

We had a remarkable culminating week with Cohort XVI from the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative Executive Education Program. More than 50 crisis leadership professionals from federal, state, and municipal agencies, international governments, as well as the private and non-profit sectors gathered in Cambridge, Mass., from June 19 to 22, for the concluding session of the NPLI meta-leadership experience.

Cohort XVI included participants from the U.S. Departments of Homeland Security, Defense, Health and Human Services, the Transportation Security Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Coast Guard, New York City Emergency Management, Massachusetts city and state police departments, and the American Red Cross, to name a few.

With the first week of summer kicking off, it was a warm welcome back for this Cohort that began with a police tour of the Boston Harbor, where attendees reconnected. Since our opening session in December, these crisis leaders had spent the past six months back at their various agencies and roles incorporating meta-leadership into their work and team projects. Back in Cambridge this week, they looked forward to gaining strategic insight from guest speakers and presenting their final projects.

Leadership lessons from the community

Each concluding session focuses on incidents in which participants and alumni have been involved between the opening session in December and the finale in June. As many of our alumni have had to manage teams and communities through active shooter events, this became a sub-theme for 2018.

After a warm welcome and lecture on the “Three Zones of Meta-Leadership” from NPLI faculty, the attendees jump-started their week with a powerful panel offering the perspective so survivors of mass casualty events. Eden Hebron, a 15-year-old student and survivor of the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and her mother Nicole Cook were joined by Dave Fortier, a survivor of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings and founder of the One World Strong Foundation, a support network for survivors of traumatic and terrorist events.

The survivor panel, moderated by NPLI faculty Rich Serino and Leonard Marcus, centered on Eden’s experience in Parkland, which provided insight about community preparedness, post-event support, and how communities who have joined this tragic club can learn from one another. Eden recounted how she hid in one of the first floor classrooms attacked by the shooter and watched as her friends and classmates were shot. The details of her traumatic experience provided meaningful feedback for the first responders in the room, particularly how her interactions with law enforcement during and after the shooting affected her. The big takeaway for our attendees was how powerful it can be for professionals in emergency leadership and crisis preparedness to have discussions like these with survivors.

Another leader offering his perspective and leadership lessons was Ryan Turner, Division Chief of Emergency Management and Safety for the Henderson (NV) Fire Department. He took attendees through his personal and professional experience during the Las Vegas concert shooting on October 1, 2017. Turner, an NPLI Cohort XIII alum, described his journey in and out of the basement while managing the team and crisis response that day. Not only were members of his team learning that friends and family had been shot or killed while they worked — Turner couldn’t locate his own mother, who attended the concert. It was 48 hours before he knew she had escaped safely.

Leading an organization through crisis and change was another sub-theme. Vice Admiral Peter Neffenger, an NPLI alum from Cohort IV, shared his experience coming into the role of TSA Administrator under the Obama administration. Neffenger’s story, taught in a case study format by Eric McNulty, launched the week with the powerful theme of empowering and enabling down to the individual level within an administration.

The following day, Kerry Gilpin, Colonel of the Massachusetts State Police, and an member of NPLI Cohort XV, discussed her transition into her recent position in November 2017, just before the agency found itself in an unfortunate spotlight. Gilpin shared the challenges of shifting the culture of an institution and the importance of changing hearts and minds one person at a time.

Brock Long, FEMA, Harvard, NPLIThe final focus was on the significant challenges of increasing numbers of natural disasters. Providing insight into the evolving federal role in preparedness and response, Brock Long, the current FEMA Administrator, closed out our week by sharing his vision and mission for the agency as well as lessons learned while managing 35 natural disasters simultaneously in 2017. Since coming into the position, Long has made similar efforts to Gilpin and Neffenger to connect and solicit ideas from everyone in his agency. Something as simple as getting coffee on a different floor “with the early birds” on his staff has helped him stay connected to his team and learn from their collective wisdom.

We hope each of our attendees walked away from their experience with the meta-leadership skills to lead up, down, and across and the additional asset of the NPLI network of alumni. We also express our sincere gratitude for our guest speakers who provided their personal and professional insight into leading through crises. Thank you all for the work you do every day working to save lives.