Crisis Meta-Leadership Lessons From the Boston Marathon Bombings Response: The Ingenuity of Swarm Intelligence

“Never tell your people how to do things. Tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” ~ General George Patton

Here is a new white paper out of The Harvard School of Government titled CRISIS META-LEADERSHIP LESSONS FROM THE BOSTON MARATHON BOMBINGS RESPONSE: THE INGENUITY OF SWARM INTELLIGENCE which touches on some great leadership lessons that show the importance of a common mission and intent, core values such as; 1) unity of mission that coalesces all stakeholders; 2) generosity of spirit; 3) deference for the responsibility and authority of others; 4) refraining from grabbing credit or hurling blame; 5) a foundation of respectful and experienced relationships that garner mutual trust and confidence. These powerful attributes along with strength of character helped to effectively meet and deal with the types of uncertainty, disorder, chaos, known and unknown’s first responders and leaders face, in crisis situations. The ability to create and nurture mutual trust and strength of character within their organizations and their communities, prior to a crisis rings throughout this report and I feel it cannot be stressed enough. This is necessary to enable effective decisions, especially decisions under pressure.

The authors talked about the ability to shape the response with Swarm intelligence. Swarm intelligence is the ability of people to gather, make sense of and share information both explicit and implicit information with one another and make it actionable. In the course of this research, they discovered an unusual phenomenon among leaders of the Boston MBR. Though many people took charge of aspects of the response, no one was in charge of the overall event. Beyond that, these leaders set a tone of remarkable collaboration and inter-agency leveraging among one another. 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. As John Boyd said In Organic Design for Command and Control “Without the implicit bonds or connections associated with similar images or impressions, there can be neither harmony nor individual initiative within a collective entity.” Orientation is key but it is seen rarely in groups of people. Using the tools of common outlook, focus of effort, and mutual trust, we can convert a bunch of individual orientations, into a harmonized common orientation, allowing first responders to do what needs to be done with little direction from above. This allows us to redefine command and control or in the words of General Paul van Riper “be in command and out of control.”

The leadership functional principles and rules evident in the Boston Marathon bombing incident are quite simple. While these principles and imperatives may appear logical and self-evident, adherence is remarkably difficult during a high stakes crisis with its penetrating emotions and uncertainties this white paper lays out are:

  • An overriding objective that: forges unity of mission and connectivity of action; is compelling enough to override standard practices as needed; and obviates bureaucratic obstructions, distractions or bickering.

  • A spirit of generosity that rallies groups and individuals to assist one another and overcome constraints of resources, know-how or tools to achieve the paramount mission, expressed as “Whaddya got? Whaddaya need?”

  • Respect for the responsibilities and authorities of others, described as “staying in one’s lane” while assisting others to succeed in their lane to accomplish mission-critical duties and tasks.

  • Neither taking undue credit nor pointing blame among key players oftentimes portrayed as “checking your ego at the door.”

  • Genuine inter-personal trust and respect developed well before the event so that existing and dependable leadership relationships, integrity, and camaraderie can be leveraged during the event, often described as “don’t wait for an emergency to exchange business cards.”

The authors discovered an extraordinary though unspoken compliance to these rules among the Boston MBR leaders they studied. To leverage the advantages of Swarm Intelligence SI, leaders followed the principles dutifully. It is not easy. More often than not, large scale crises exhibit: bickering among political leaders; pre-existing rivalries among agencies that frame decisions, actions and communications; and cross-jurisdictional conflict about who is in charge of what, blame, credit grabbing, and as a result, disruptive fragmenting of effort.

This is an interesting 38 page report on leadership in crisis I think every first responder should read as it challenges the top down thinking and linear approaches to crisis response and management so prevalent today. It speaks boldly about preparation beforehand and the importance of training high level professionals. Leadership is a day to day thing not an event driven thing, Its very important for leaders not to ever lose sight of this.

Stay Oriented!

Fred