Deval Patrick Photo

Deval Patrick

Co-Director, Center for Public Leadership
David R. Gergen Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership

On Monday afternoon, April 15, 2013, near the finish line of the 117th annual Boston Marathon, two bombs exploded in the crowd of onlookers, killing 3 people instantly, gravely injuring hundreds of others, and plunging the community and the nation into turmoil. By Friday evening, under international media scrutiny, through coordination of multiple federal, state and local agencies, private sector professionals, and countless volunteers, two bombers had been identified, one lay dead and the other in custody, hundreds of wounded had been successfully treated, recovery throughout the region was well underway, and “Boston Strong” had become a globally-recognized tagline. 

Fortunately, terrorist attacks in America are relatively uncommon, but public calamities in general — like infrastructure failures or public health emergencies — are less and less so. Public crises place complex demands on public leaders, ranging from directing recovery efforts to addressing follow-on risks to restoring order. To meet these moments, leaders must effectively communicate, coordinate, execute, comfort and otherwise act, often without complete information or even clear authority. 

In this course, we will explore approaches public leaders have used to navigate through a variety of high-stakes public crises, and lessons those experiences teach about effective leadership in a crisis. In addition to terrorist attacks, health crises and infrastructure failures, examples will include natural disasters, economic emergencies and political scandals. Mindful that in many public leadership positions it is increasingly difficult to differentiate between crisis and routine, we will attempt to develop an understanding of how to anticipate and prepare for various types of crises by engaging with stakeholders, and how strategy, administration, execution and communication can shape crisis response. So that students can begin to develop their own approaches to leading through public crises, the class will (1) conduct simulations to help students better appreciate the practical, ethical and sometimes political decisions public leaders must confront in public emergencies, and (2) engage with practitioners as guests in class who have experienced crisis response so that students can inquire directly about the leadership choices our guests have faced and the strategies they used to move their teams and their constituents forward.

This course will touch upon, but not limit itself to how to communicate during a crisis. Other courses at the Kennedy School go more deeply into that important subject. This course addresses how public leaders in the “hot seat” can anticipate and then more effectively and holistically lead through the emergency with an eye on the long-term consequences for all stakeholders.