Five Leadership Principles We Learned From the Boston Bombings

The following was written by Leonard J. Marcus, Ph.D., who spoke at National Geographic Channel’s special advanced screening in Boston of the documentary Inside the Hunt for the Boston Bombers. Dr. Marcus is founding Co-Director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, a joint program of the Harvard School of Public Health and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government Center for Public Leadership.

The Ingenuity of Swarm Intelligence
By Leonard J. Marcus, Ph.D.

In the course of our research on leaders of the Boston Marathon Bombings Response, we discovered an extraordinary phenomenon. Though many people took charge of aspects of the response, no one official was in command of it all, including the range of law enforcement, medical and recovery activities.  Boston’s leaders set a tone of remarkable collaboration and inter-agency leveraging amongst one another. Competitiveness, ego driven behavior, and flamboyant credit taking – often present in large crises involving many jurisdictions and agencies – were not significant factors.

We discovered in this research a phenomenon akin to “Swarm Intelligence,” a term coined to explain natural phenomena – such as birds flying and fish schooling – that allow for remarkable achievements when no one is in charge or directing overall activity.  It requires all to follow the same rules and principles, though they may not be explicit.  In Boston, Swarm Intelligence shaped order without control.

Five leadership principles and rules emerged during the Boston Marathon Bombings Response. While these principles may appear logical and self-evident, adherence is remarkably difficult during a high stakes crisis with its penetrating emotions and uncertainties.

1. An overriding objective that forges unity of mission, connectivity of action and is compelling enough to override standard practices as needed, obviating bureaucratic obstructions and distractions.

During the Boston Marathon Bombings Response, unity of mission was straightforward, “Save Lives.”  This was true at the blast sites, where first responders and citizens braved the possibility of more bombs, applying tourniquets and evacuating the wounded; at hospitals where clinicians worked quickly, overcoming the chaos of a rapid, massive influx of patients; and during the investigation, as law enforcement worked together to find and apprehend the suspects before another attack.

2. 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?”

An extraordinary level of cooperation developed across government agencies, private businesses, non-profit agencies and among private citizens.  Whether it was video from the blast sites, bomb-sniffing dogs during the Presidential visit, or flashlights during the Watertown manhunt, people were ready and eager to assist.

3. 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.

The response in Boston involved numerous overlapping and intersecting lines of jurisdiction and authority, such as the large presence of the FBI and Boston Police in Watertown during the manhunt.  There was plenty of room for conflict and competition. Overall, leaders respected those jurisdictional sensitivities, seeking consensus when possible and cooperation as the overriding principle.

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

Simply stated: People behaved well, valued one another and worked together.  There was little or no grandstanding.

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

From leaders to front line personnel, there was strong inter-personal connection, confidence and solidarity.  Many of these leaders spent their careers together, advanced side by side, and had high regard for the professional expertise and credibility of their colleagues. Those relationships were leveraged to build robust unity of effort.


Inside the Hunt for the Boston Bombers encores Wednesday, April 16, at 9P ET/PT.


© 2014, The President and Fellows of Harvard University


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