When the full story of this country in the 21st century is told, the first chapter will no doubt be titled “the decade of fear.” We in the U.S. are not accustomed to fighting wars in the homeland; yet with 9/11, violence was thrust into our midst. The enemy was mysteriously elusive despite our best technology, military reach and boundless spending. And now, bin Laden is dead.
The outbursts of relief and celebration have given way to questions: “What’s next?” “Will there be retaliation?” “Are we now safe?”
Through our work at the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative at Harvard, we and our colleagues have had the opportunity to learn from leaders who have faced situations that also raised those questions: terror attacks in Israel, London, Madrid, Mumbai and Islamabad, as well as other high-stakes incidents such as Hurricane Katrina, the H1N1 pandemic, the earthquake in Haiti and most recently the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. There are lessons to be taken from these that can make us more secure as a nation and more resilient as a people in the face of this uncertainty. And the first, overarching lesson from our research is that bad leadership – much like smoking – is a public health risk factor. Whether in the aftermath of a terror attack or a natural disaster, we have seen that when leaders don’t perform well lives are lost and people abandoned.
The second lesson is that the ultimate objective of preparedness and response leadership is unity of action, which can be difficult given the fragmented nature of multiple jurisdictions and the complexity of the mosaic of organizations essential to our security, safety and readiness. The Federal government has taken significant steps to increase connectivity between its agencies; between the federal, state and local agencies; and between the public, private and non-profit sectors. Still, there is much more work to be done. Eighty-five percent of the critical infrastructure is in the private sector—including utilities, banks and the food supply—and thus working and leading collaboratively is essential to our recovery from any large-scale crisis. Working together after a disaster requires forging bonds before a disaster.
Third, we must ask, and expect, every citizen to participate. Citizen bystanders are often overlooked in preparation yet can be a powerful resource. Vigilant airline passengers stopped the shoe bomber in 2003 and the underwear bomber in 2009. A bystander alerted authorities to the attempted Times Square bombing attempt. We know too that passengers on the doomed 9/11 flights also fought the hijackers. We should regard these heroes as leaders in their own right. They rallied help from others, took risks, and had the courage and the presence of mind to act in the face of danger. You never know when it will be your moment to lead, to make the call or to take the action that saves lives.
Preparedness leaders must make citizen bystanders an explicit component in their planning, communicate to citizens that they are needed, and accept their active participation. The public cannot expect government to simply take care of this for them. Government, in turn, should address barriers to public contributions such as lack of training and potential legal liability. Public safety personnel are quite capable of handling routine emergencies, but not so mega-disasters. In those cases, we are all responsible to and for each other.
We are a better prepared and better protected country than we were in 2001 because of what we have learned about leading through crises, especially crises without precedent and for which our prior experience is not sufficient. We are far more likely to be resilient when the next major blow hits us. Much of this is credit to leadership improvements in the preparedness and response community, the new and fortified links to the business and non-profit sectors, and the courageous willingness of citizen bystanders to make the difference when it matters most.
We must, however, commit to increased assertiveness in taking these leadership lessons forward if we are to be a stronger, better protected, better prepared and more resilient nation, no matter the threat that faces us. The terrorist threat has not ended with the demise of Osama bin Laden. Those he inspired are still among us and their deadly intentions still pose a danger. And as we look about, we are reminded that acts of nature, too, put people in harms way. The leadership we need will not come just from Washington. It must come from each and every one of us, leaders in our own right, willing to step up, reach out and link together. This is our national strength and national resilience, a leadership lesson that we should embrace for the next decade in this story.
Leonard J. Marcus, Ph.D., and Barry C. Dorn, M.D., are co-director and faculty (respectively) of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, a joint program of the Harvard School of Public Health and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.