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555 Harvard University initiativesOne of the better sources

Categories: PsychologyUniversity

5.5.5 Harvard University initiatives

One of the better sources of material in this space is Harvard University, and in particular their crisis leadership training and research programme, the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative (NPLI). They have prepared a number of useful case studies, ranging from the Iowa floods in 2008 through to the US response to hurricanes in 2017. In addition, they have published a number of articles related to crisis leadership concepts, three of which I have chosen to highlight for this literature review for different reasons.

The first article, Crisis meta-leadership lessons from the Boston marathon bombings: The ingenuity of swarm intelligence (Marcus, 2014), highlights two key aspects of what was considered a successful response operation. Meta-leadership is a concept developed within NPLI to provide leadership and impetus against common goals during multi-agency operations where simple (intra-organisational) command and control arrangements are inappropriate (i.e. a crisis leadership function). Swarm intelligence is the fusion of inputs from multiple intelligence sources to create a single or common operating picture (i.

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e. a crisis management function). This is consistent with the need to draw on all three component parts of the executive’s trinity – leadership, management, and command. I highlight this piece of research also, because of its shortcomings. An examination of appendix three of the report reveals a list of 33 formal interviewees, comprising mayor, state governor, directors, superintendents, chiefs etc. with the only person not in a position of authority being one news reporter. If leadership is truly a system and not simply a means of exercising control and coordination, then in order to gain an understanding of the success, including the needs and expectations of all players in that system, the net for input into these sorts of reviews needs to be cast much wider.

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The second article was on integrating brain science into crisis leadership development (McNulty et al., 2018). While much of the NPLI research focuses on the events, consistent with an earlier critical observation highlighted in my report about a lack of focus on leadership in extreme contexts, this article promotes greater understanding of some of those factors necessary to develop the next generation of leaders.

The third, a collaboration between Harvard staff and practitioner departments, looks at the threat environment, using the concept, VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous). This term was originally coined by the US military, drawing on earlier formative work by Bennis and Nanus (2004), and later promoted as having value in a civilian environment (Alkhaldi, Austin, Cura, Dantzler, Holland, Maples, Quarrelles, et al., 2017; Alkhaldi, Austin, Cura, Dantzler, Holland, Maples, Weinkle, et al., 2017). VUCA recognises the importance of context in developing the competencies required for leadership.

As you would expect of an institution designing and implementing development programmes for crises leaders, NPLI’s role is very much of a strategic enabler, providing knowledge, tools and perspective to practitioners. This differs from many of the articles written on leadership in extreme contexts, in that it actually advances the development of practitioners and does not simply indulge in philosophic debate on the issues.

5.5.6 Leadership as a system.

As previously stated in chapter 3, while over the years much has been written on leadership, there is a much smaller subset of articles on leadership in extreme contexts, with the majority of these focusing on the event rather than leadership itself. Of the remaining where leadership has been the focus, the spotlight has been shone on actions and capabilities of one person, the leader. This ignores the importance of those factors external to this single person in ensuring mission success. If leadership is indeed a system, as espoused by Coffey (2010) and Berim and Berisha (2014), then no one appears to have broken down the system to identify the individual components of the leadership network and examined the relationships within. Furthermore, when determining the role and capabilities of leaders in extreme contexts, it would appear that only practicing emergency managers have been surveyed (Cwiak et al., 2017; Devitt & Borodzicz, 2008; Flin & Arbuthnot, 2002; Intagliata, Ulrich, & Smallwood, 2000; Malewska, 2018; Slaven & Flin, 1997). There has been little research on the demands on leaders by governance authorities or indeed, followers. And if these other people are bone fide components of the leadership system, then no one has determined the required capabilities that would define their contribution toward success. “Leadership does not exist in a vacuum” (Osborn et al., 2002, p. 798) and therefore other components, including environmental factors need to be considered. Articles therefore omit or mask many of the factors that may contribute toward good leadership outcomes.

5.5.7 General leadership factors/influencers

During the course of the literature review, several articles on features of the leadership challenge were examined, including (but not limited to) cognitive bias, phronesis, heuristics, mindfulness, command and control, assessment and selection, luck/serendipity, leadership brand, swift trust, values, performance under pressure, teamwork, business and security, learning from the past, the psychology of leadership, communication, social construction, positive thinking, knowledge transfers, uncertainty, behaviour, safety, governability, and taking charge. Each has a leadership component or relevance; however these have not always been examined in an extreme context environment. Similarly there were a number of fascinating case studies, useful theories/concepts (including normal accident theory, high reliability theory, modernism/postmodernism etc.), as well as useful concepts from other sectors, e.g. sport – chess (mind retention and assessing decision impact), cricket (decision-making and performance under stress), and motor racing (decision-making at pace); each with possible applicability to my area of focus. These deserve further, more critical examination in line with my proposed research context.

5.5.8 Theory versus practice

During the course of the literature review, interviews were conducted with (thirteen) senior practitioners representing a broad spectrum of operational leadership expertise across the nation; to ensure all the relevant available academic materiel had been captured. This was accomplished by asking them:

a. Do they subscribe to any particular thought leaders or have seen/gained access to, any relevant resource material?

b. Have they read/do they have access to any relevant case studies on the subject – either on the event or the leader?

c. Can they identify any existing gaps in the current development arrangements?

d. Can they identify any opportunities for further research on my topic?

The intention was that where thought leaders or concepts were highlighted, these would then be run through the academic search engines to obtain relevant original source material. While some referred to academics – Grint, (leadership decision-making), Mileti (social science), Adair (leadership theory) Boin, Sundelius, Stern, and T’Hart (public administration and governance), Drabek (disaster response) Hogan and Warrenfeltz (competencies and assessment), Taleb (risk and management) Olejarski (political science), Hackman (psychology), Schoenberg (communication), and Owen (emergency management education); others spoke of institutions (Federal Emergency Management Agency, Australian Institute of Police Management, SEALS, militaries various, and Harvard University); author/practitioners Simon Sinek (motivation), Snowden (ex IBM); plus Colin Powell, Stanley McCrystal, David Marquet (US Military). While the sample was too small to be definitive, the question arose, does scholarship produce good leaders in extreme contexts, or is pathway development led by practitioners? The answer would appear to be both.

During the course of the interviews, several raised the inadequacy and adhoc nature of current leadership development initiatives related to their employment. Many of these were considered quite insular and allowed only a limited degree of cross-pollination. This raised the question of why organisational development programmes tend to look internally for inspiration and content when perhaps they should be casting the net wider to examine other sectors, in the same way that South West Airlines, when looking for inspiration to improve terminal operations, looked to Formula One motor-racing (Freiberg & Freiberg, 1998)?


6 The Gap

With the literature review (for the purposes of the confirmation report) complete, the feeling was one of haunting realisation, mirroring Grint (2010, p. 1) in his epiphany:

“When I began reading the leadership literature in about 1986, I had already spent some time in various leadership positions, so at that time I’d read little but understood everything about the subject from the University of Life. Then, as I read more material, I realised that all my previous ‘truths’ were built on very dubious foundations, so my understanding decreased as my knowledge increased”.

In short, if only I had known then (as a practitioner) what I know now; and even then, the literature appeared to reveal more questions than answers; with several large gaps identified, the most notable being:

a. A dearth of research focusing on the “leadership” function in extreme contexts as distinct to either general leadership principles (during business as usual activities) or the circumstances surrounding the subject extreme event itself;

b. A lack of understanding of those physical and conceptual elements that comprise the leadership function. If leadership is to be viewed as a system and not the actions of a single individual, then those entities/components comprising the system (under situations of extreme context) have not been well-articulated, nor have the resulting linkages and tensions (inter and intra) between each, examined in any detail;

c. Where the competencies of leadership in extreme contexts have been identified, this has simply been on the basis of input from emergency managers themselves and not from those other entities comprising the leadership system. Competencies identified do not reflect the full capability and capacity associated with the leadership function and little work has been conducted in critically examining those differentiating factors between business as usual and extreme contexts;

d. Recent changes to the definition and scope of the security sector have given insufficient time for scholars to consider the linkages and impact for all those factors now firmly ensconced as part of that sector;

e. Times are changing and the stereotyped profile of an emergency manager as someone with a military/police experience requires revisiting. Whereas both police and the military have a system of vertical recruitment with people being drawn through ranks and groomed for future responsibilities in sufficient time to “hit the ground running”, emergency management in both the public and private sectors possesses none of the advantages of sector-wide workforce management/development;

f. The majority of the material considered as part of the literature review was Euro/American centric, with the obvious question being, is leadership theory and practice influenced/determined by culture, and if so, is there a New Zealand leadership style for extreme contexts? and,

g. What are those factors that enable leadership in extreme contexts to leverage the situation to thrive rather than simply survive?


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555 Harvard University initiativesOne of the better sources. (2019, Nov 24). Retrieved from

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