A reflection on leadership lessons of crisis management from the leaders of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative: Leonard Marcus, Ph.D., Eric McNulty, M.A., and Richard Serino.
For crisis leaders, the 2017 hurricane season – not yet over – is a sequence of “Was-Is-Will Be.”

Thursday, September 7, American Red Cross Disaster Operations and Coordination Center, Fairfax, Virginia. Hurricane Harvey conference call: It’s been over a week since southern Texas counties were hit. How many people are in shelters? Are supplies getting through still muddy waters? Next call: The Red Cross manager in St. Thomas on a satellite phone with Hurricane Irma overhead. The wind roars. How many people are in shelters? Two. Two? Yes, people are afraid to leave their homes for fear of looting. What help do you need? Next call: Florida Red Cross. Forecasters cannot predict precisely Irma’s path through the state. East coast? West coast? There is not enough of anything to prepare both sides, south up to north, with cots, staff, volunteers, emergency kits and supplies. Difficult decisions to make.

Was-Is-Will Be.

National Preparedness Leadership Initiative faculty members have been on scene and present with alumni of the program as well as other leaders through the 2017 hurricane season. The purpose is to glean first person crisis leadership lessons learned so they can be transmitted to future leaders and future events. Among our questions: In what ways has swarm leadership and swarming behaviors been seen in the responses? What is swarm leadership?

It hit us as we researched the leadership response to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. In every other major crisis we studied, there was an identifiable leader in charge of the overall operational response. During the 2010 Gulf oil spill, it was Admiral Thad Allen, Commandant of the Coast Guard. During the 2009 H1N1 outbreak, it was Dr. Richard Besser, Acting Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the 2005 Hurricane Katrina response, it was FEMA Director Michael Brown. The 2013 Marathon bombings response was different.

The Marathon bombings were jurisdictionally complex. The explosions detonated on a Boston street. Hence, authority was with the city. The Marathon winds through eight localities and is thereby also a Massachusetts state event. And terrorism is legally a federal offense. On every level of government, there were numerous different agencies at the table, including law enforcement, medical, fire, public works and of course, city, state and federal political leaders.

Recognizing these complexities as well as the urgency of the problems and decisions they faced, the leaders proceeded without identifying one agency or individual in charge of the overall operation. Yes, each agency lead oversaw the operations of his or her organization. When an overriding question was relevant to that entity – such as matters involving the investigation – the appropriate individual took the lead. However, no one assumed lead of the whole undertaking.

It astonished us that despite this anomaly, the response achieved its overriding objectives. Though three people were instantly killed by the blasts, all 264 people injured – many with life threatening injuries – survived. That was no accident. A lot of leadership generated that result. The investigation and manhunt were successfully completed in 102 hours. And under the banner of “Boston Strong,” the city was truly resilient.

What was it about how the leaders behaved and interacted that could explain these outcomes? Our attention turned swarm intelligence. The field studies how creatures such as ants, bees and termites accomplish complex decision-making and tasks as a collective without overall singular direction. The key to their successes are instinctual adherence to shared rules and principles along with clear lines of communication and structure.

The question was could we find this phenomenon among leaders of the Marathon response? Reviewing our interview notes, we searched for patterns in the responses. We discovered five principles that were consistent across the leaders:

  1. Unity of mission – it was for these leaders, Save Lives!
  2. Generosity of spirit and action – these leaders and people across the community were willing and eager to help one another.
  3. Stay in your lanes, doing your job, and help others to succeed in theirs. How can I make you a success?
  4. No ego – no blame. No one took credit for their success together. No one pointed fingers when problems arose.
  5. A foundation of trusting relations – these leaders knew and had confidence in one another.

After we assembled these five principles, we called the leaders. In sum, they told us, “Yes, this describes what we were doing though we did not know it at the time.”

Humans, we sometimes forget, share many instincts with other, less intelligent beings. Our threat-survival reaction - often called the amygdala hijack - is one example. Another is swarm intelligence. Humans are fundamentally social beings. We naturally need one another, care for one another and connect with one another. It was a crisis that led to the discovery, though, the phenomenon is part of everyday living and interacting. It is inbred. How might leaders leverage this instinct to forge coherence of action amidst the chaos of a crisis?

Over the past four years, we designed a curriculum on swarm leadership and taught it to government agencies, including FEMA, TSA, the Secret Service and the CDC; humanitarian agencies such as the Red Cross; and private sector businesses. We find that understanding swarm instincts orients leaders to seek and engage opportunities for strategic informal collaboration. This is particularly important when the task at hand requires active participation by different departments, organizations or jurisdictions. While each of these entities retains responsibility for their own lines of authority, they tend to collaborate with less attention to who is in charge and more focus on getting the job done, especially when lives are at stake.

Hurricane Harvey’s erratic pathway into southern Texas unexpectedly flooded large areas of Houston. The release of waters from stressed reservoirs turned otherwise dry neighborhoods into river ways. The formal emergency response system simply did not have the resources or capabilities to save the many people stranded in their homes and cars.

The situation spurred an informal network of boat owners, the “Cajun Navy,” to literally save the day. As FEMA Federal Coordinating Officer Kevin Hannes, an NPLI alum, explained, “My primary objective and concern was that people, picked up by the Cajun Navy, would not end up stranded on bridges or higher ground. Every drop off had to be to a place from which we could get people to safety and to the support they needed. And though we did not have or impose formal authority over the Cajun Navy, we coordinated seamlessly. It was not something we formally put into place.” It operated like a swarm.

National coordination of the American Red Cross response took place at Disaster Operations and Coordination Center in Fairfax, Virginia. Swarm principles took hold there as every room and every information board displayed the five principles of swarm leadership practice. The challenge for the Red Cross in Houston was in moving supplies and volunteers into central Houston shelters, crowded with tens of thousands of evacuees. The rising waters turned downtown into an island. Resources and people were staged at the perimeters of the flood zone. Through quick coordination with FEMA and the Department of Defense, high profile vehicles were recruited to ferry humanitarian supplies through the waters in support of the response.

The NPLI has partnered with a private company which has a major footprint in the Houston area. As part of a crisis leadership program, leaders have been schooled in swarm leadership principles. Those practices emerged as the company rallied to save and support numerous employees and families stranded in the watery murk. Theirs was not a Navy but an Army of volunteers who set up a temporary shelter for houseless employees, a call-in center that gathered and relayed information when the city’s 911 system became nearly paralyzed, and a volunteer network to assist employees whose homes were destroyed. This spontaneous and informal network sprung up alongside the company’s formal crisis infrastructure, allowing them to respond on a scale that otherwise was unattainable.

Swarm leadership does not describe all crisis scenarios. The flip side is “suspicion leadership.” This is a scenario in which: 1) There is no unity of effort as leaders and groups seek their own objectives and not those of the whole; 2) There is a grab for resources, assets and authority for the benefit of specific individuals or entities; 3) There is a battle for turf and authority that seeks individual advantage; 4) It is all ego and all blame; and 5) There are no trusting relationships. Everyone is endeavoring to beat or outdo one another. Swarm and suspicion leadership can be placed on a continuum, with more collaborative endeavors on the swarm side and more disjointed on the suspicion side.

Leaders create the conditions in which swarm or suspicion are more likely to emerge. During a crisis, when time is of the essence, the better leaders are able to leverage informal networks and collective instincts, the better will they efficiently and effectively assemble the response called for by the crisis at hand.

The National Preparedness Leadership Initiative is a joint program of the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, Division of Policy Translation and Leadership Development and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government Center for Public Leadership. Leonard Marcus, Eric McNulty and Richard Serino are on the NPLI faculty