Meta-Leadership 2.0: More Critical Than Ever

Over the past decade, meta-leadership, a methodology developed at the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative at Harvard, has become a widely adopted framework for leading in emergency preparedness and response. Over that time, both the model and methods have advanced based on field experience. This article presents the latest thinking and practice for those charged with public safety, security, and resilience.

The first peer-reviewed article on the concept of meta-leadership was published in collaboration with Barry Dorn and Joseph Henderson in 2006. Since then, this team at the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative (NPLI) has had the opportunity to teach meta-leadership to tens of thousands of emergency preparedness and response professionals around the world. Meta-leadership is now included in the curriculum not only at the executive education programs at Harvard but also at the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Emergency Management Institute, the Air Force War College, National Defense University, and other institutions.

The Evolution of Meta-Leadership

The meta-leadership concept continues to evolve. The team learns both from research with leaders in the field as they prepare for and respond to crises as well as from participants in classes, workshops, and seminars. Fresh insights have been gathered by observing and interviewing leaders during and immediately after incidents, including: responses to the H1N1, Ebola, and Zika outbreaks; the Deepwater Horizon oil spill; the Hurricane Sandy landfall; and the Boston Marathon bombings. Many of these response leaders have completed meta-leadership training, providing opportunities to field test ideas and practices. Likewise, the research team has expanded, now including Eric McNulty, Richard Serino, and other researchers and faculty. With all that, the team has undertaken a “reboot” of the original concepts and their applications. Welcome to Meta-Leadership 2.0.

Meta-leadership was conceived as a conceptual framework and practice method particularly applicable to leaders expected to influence a wide range of stakeholders, including those over whom they have no direct authority. For example, during a large complex disaster, subject matter experts must persuade political officials and executives, the general public, as well as leaders of other organizations to achieve effective coordination and collaboration. The necessary connectivity of effort includes agencies across the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. Since 2006, the degree of difficulty in accomplishing these linkages has increased; the threat environment has grown more complex; and the expectations of the public to ensure their safety and security has intensified. Leadership practices can explain many of the differences between response successes and disappointments.

For those new to meta-leadership, what follows is a brief introduction. For those familiar with previous iterations, this is an update of the model.

Three Dimensions of Meta-Leadership

Meta-leadership is a holistic, three-dimensional framework for grounding leaders, decoding the context in which someone leads, and then recruiting and motivating a wide range of stakeholders to achieve shared objectives. It views leadership as an exercise in complex problem solving. The meta-leader creates a “problem-solution” environment in which problems are rapidly identified and sustainable solutions are deployed. Unity of purpose, generosity, and trust – often expressed as, “How can I help make you a success?” – fuel productive thinking and action.

The first dimension of meta-leadership is The Person of the Meta-Leader. Meta-leaders understand and express both who they are and why they are leading. High levels of emotional intelligence, particularly self-awareness and self-regulation, are critical in stressful environments. As neuroscientists and others expand the understanding of brain functioning – especially during times of stress – it is possible to teach leaders how to be “smarter than their brain.” For example, the ability to recognize and counteract the survival-driven “amygdala hijack” of the freeze-flight-fight response by deploying practiced protocols is essential to efficient and effective response leadership. Beyond this, awareness of cognitive biases – the ways in which human brains process and interpret information – helps leaders overcome blind spots and distractions. Creating an environment of psychological safety encourages followers to reach balanced independent decisions and speak necessary truth to power. By mastering self-discipline and serving as a visible role model, leaders foster confidence, discipline, and order across the response enterprise.

The second dimension of meta-leadership is The Situation – the milieu that leaders confront. The problem is both to discern what is happening and what must be done about it. Every crisis or disaster is composed of multiple situations: population health, infrastructure damage, environmental destruction, business and government continuity challenges, political considerations, media narratives, and more. By mapping these situations and the involved stakeholders – including their independent and overlapping motivations and interests – the meta-leader develops widely conceived situational awareness. This effort is both more comprehensive and more nuanced than what is achieved through a traditional, data-driven common operating picture. Equipped with this wide perspective, the meta-leader identifies patterns, generates options, makes decisions, takes actions, and communicates to stay ahead of rapidly unfolding events.

The third dimension of meta-leadership is Connectivity – linking and leveraging people and organizations to create unity of effort and amplify the collective impact of individual activities. Shaping connectivity, the meta-leader optimizes the flow of relevant information, decisions, and resources across the enterprise to increase the likelihood of and shorten the time to a positive outcome. By continually improving the signal-to-noise ratio in vertical and horizontal feedback loops, the meta-leader catalyzes productivity in multiple directions: down to subordinates; up to superiors; across to silos within the organizational chain of command; and beyond to other entities involved in the situation. Each of these directional facets of connectivity has distinct authority/influence dynamics, governance structures, and performance expectations, which the meta-leader skillfully negotiates.

The Complex, Nonlinear Management Approach

The practice of meta-leadership requires one to embrace complexity. This means an acknowledgment that: much is beyond the leader’s control; relational interdependencies are difficult to fully fathom; and accurate assessment requires seeing the system as a whole and not simply as its individual parts. This all can seem daunting and even foreign to those trained in and operating with traditional linear approaches to management. Therefore, meta-leaders recognize their tasks as not merely establishing control. Among all the stakeholders involved in a complex event, it is more a matter of establishing order beyond control.

When the NPLI team asks professionals if they like order – knowing what is expected of them and what they can expect of others – almost all respond affirmatively. Then when asked how many like to be controlled, far fewer hands go up. However, much of the doctrine that directs how leaders prepare and respond to crises is about establishing control through chains of command, jurisdictional boundaries, and limits on authority. These can work well in the predictable scenario of routine situations or within a hierarchical organization. However, rigid doctrine can cause conflict and impede progress when a response involves multiple jurisdictions, public-private sector interactions or the public, particularly when some of these entities are outside of or unfamiliar with a formal incident command system. It is a paradox of complexity theory: the more control is imposed, the less order is achieved. When order among the entities is the leadership priority, the leader imposes control only when it contributes to order and restrains it when it inhibits people from accomplishing their part of the larger mission.

There were many examples of leading for order beyond control in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing response. Chains of command worked well within individual organizations. Members of those organizations stayed “in their lanes” and trusted others to do the same. Yet when confronted with novel situations, leaders found innovative ways to work together and solve presenting problems, for example: keeping the transit system in operation and secure in the immediate aftermath of the bombings; securing the city for a presidential visit in the midst of a major criminal investigation; or coordinating a manhunt that shut down a major U.S. city and several of its suburbs.

Meta-leadership arose from observations of leaders as they practiced complex problem solving. Discoveries were linked to the relevant academic literature in order to deepen understanding and refine practice principles and tools. The conceptual rigor intends to be both theoretically sound and pragmatically useful and relevant. The team is deeply grateful to the many dedicated leaders who shared their field experiences in keeping the nation secure. Through research and teaching about meta-leadership, the team at NPLI hopes to contribute to the development of more effective leaders and more resilient communities, helping to make them more mutually successful in preparing for and responding to crises.

Leonard J. Marcus

Leonard J. Marcus is co-director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative (NPLI), a joint program of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. In collaboration with colleagues and through extensive research, he has pioneered development of the conceptual and pragmatic bases for meta-leadership, the Walk in the Woods method for interest-based negotiation, and applications of systematic dispute resolution for multidimensional problem solving.



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