Leadership lessons from the Boston Marathon bombing response, one year later


From left, Rita Jeptoo, Shalane Flanagan, Yeshi Esayias, Buzunesh Deba, Mare Dibaba, and Jemima Jelagat Sumgong run shortly after the start in the women's division of the 118th Boston Marathon Monday, April 21, 2014 in Hopkinton, Mass. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

It's Marathon Monday. But as the runners complete what is sure to be an emotional day in Boston, it's worth focusing not only on the people running the race, but the civic leaders and first responders who came together in the aftermath of the tragic bombing last year and led with what a new report calls "remarkable results."

Two weeks ago, the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative (NPLI), a joint program of the Harvard School of Public Health and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government's Center for Public Leadership, released its analysis of the leadership lessons from the response to the Boston Marathon bombings last April. The report, well worth reading for anyone interested in crisis leadership, was presented at a symposium on April 8 in conjunction with the Metro Boston Homeland Security Region that included leaders from Boston's police force, hospitals, local government and emergency management divisions, as well as federal law enforcement and emergency management officials.

The most remarkable thing about the response to the Boston bombings, the report says, is that no one was really in charge, and yet what the people involved "accomplished together was nothing less than astounding." There were leaders of the crisis, of course. Gov. Deval Patrick stepped in as the initial public political face of the crisis due to Mayor Thomas Menino being hospitalized for surgery, arriving at the command center immediately following the bombings to help coordinate the agencies involved, despite precautions from his staff that advised him to locate at the State House for his safety. Boston Police Superintendent Billy Evans led the operation to arrest Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who prosecutors said, along with his older brother, carried out the attack. And Richard DesLauriers, the Boston FBI Special Agent in Charge, led the investigation.

Still, this was not an event where a hierarchical leader presided over the response. Rather, the leaders involved exhibited something akin to "swarm intelligence," the report says, "a phenomenon in which no one is in charge and yet, with all following the same principles and rules leaders are able to accomplish more together than any one leader could have achieved separately." The authors from NPLI write that "we have been on-scene and active in many prior national crises and never before observed this degree of cross-agency and cross-community collaboration."

While "swarm intelligence" has typically been studied among animal populations, such as ants, termites or birds, some researchers have applied the theories to human interactions in which there is "neither a commander nor an engineer controlling what the outcome will be." Rather, participants follow the same principles and rules, observe and respond to one another, and receive and send social cues in ways that can produce better results than if they were all working on their own.

When "swarm intelligence" occurs, the report says, there are also five functional principles of leadership at play. There is a mission that unites the various parties, a "generosity of spirit" that creates an atmosphere of helping other agencies rather than getting in their way, a "deference for the responsibility and authority of others," and a resistance to taking credit or placing blame. Finally, there are relationships in place that are already built on trust over years of working together. 

That last one may be the most important. The report says that the relationships between the local groups was critical to allowing them to work together so seamlessly when the crisis struck. Though molded long before, it grew stronger in the hosting of the 2004 Democratic National Convention. "That experience, so soon after 9/11, compelled local connectivity and bred the quality of solidarity in evidence during the Marathon response," the report says, adding that the annual marathon as well as other public events, such as the city's Fourth of July celebrations, allowed these groups regular opportunities to drill in emergency response ideas and protocols. "These people knew and trusted one anther."

There was also "a tone of remarkable collaboration," the report says. "Competitiveness, ego-driven behavior, and flamboyant credit taking – which are often present in large complex crises that involve many different jurisdictions and organizations – were not significant factors in this event," it says. When that happens, it can be self-reinforcing. In Boston, egos were largely checked at the door, the report says, partly due to leadership and the foundation of trust between the agencies. But because the week moved so quickly, and the collaboration was so good, the "second wave" of villains that typically surface in the media in a crisis -- typically "inept government bureaucrats or greedy private sector executives" -- never had time to emerge. "The mood was 'we're all in this together,' so the potential distractions of back stabbing and criticism was absent," the authors write.

Finally, there were lessons about communication -- what they should have done when there was both too much help and too little information. The police chief of Watertown, where the shootout occurred in the hunt for the Tsarnaev brothers, related how his force swelled from 65  to 1,800 officers after a radio dispatcher ordered all law enforcement units in eastern Massachusetts to the scene. "When one shouts 'help,' expect a response that has to be led and coordinated," the report says. In addition, other leaders involved said they should have held an hourly news briefing, at the very least to get even more cooperation from the public. "In the vacuum, rumor and misinformation spread," the authors write.

Maybe the best lesson about communication in a crisis comes from Patrick, who said he entered into each conversation at the command center with the following question: “how can I help?” By then, the report says, "he had confidence in his emergency management team as well as a sense for how he, as an elected official without subject matter expertise, could be of greatest assistance. In leading down, he was there to support their expert assessment of what was happening and what needed to be done about it."

Read also:

Lacking answers for the Boston Marathon explosions

A heartbreaking marathon story you haven't heard

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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