International HSE Conference Opens With Redefinition of Leadership

March 17, 2014

More than 700 people filled the grand ballroom at the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center for the opening session of SPE’s 2014 International Conference on Health, Safety, and Environment.

Leonard Marcus

Leonard Marcus

Roland Moreau, Conference Committee chairperson, and Kathy Kanocz, Executive Committee chairperson, introduced Jeff Spath, SPE’s 2014 president, who, in turn, introduced Leonard Marcus and Eric McNulty from the Harvard University National Preparedness Leadership Initiative.

Marcus and McNulty presented the idea of what they call meta-leadership, which is based on their research into the responses to the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013, hurricane Katrina, and the Macondo disaster in 2010. Meta-leadership, Marcus said, involves leadership that reaches out “beyond the confines of your particular role or position.”

Eric McNulty

Eric McNulty

Marcus and McNulty said that, during times of crisis, people’s brains respond by “going to the basement.” This refers to the instinctual responses of freeze, flight, or fight. During those moments, McNulty said, “all your brain is focused on survival. You can’t do any complex problem solving. You’re not very productive in terms of figuring out what’s actually going on.” The key to successful crisis management, he said, was to get out of the basement as quickly as possible in order to make sound decisions.

“You, as a crisis leader, have to be smarter than your brain,” Marcus said. This return to rational decision-making can be made by sending a second signal to the brain. This second signal can be as simple as taking a deep breath or counting to 10. With practice, one can build a second neural pathway to speed one’s return to productive thinking.

Crisis leaders must also be able to see the entire situation and realize that every crisis is actually many crises. “Being able to understand the bigger picture is part of the leadership responsibility,” Marcus said. Meta-leaders must also realize that their decisions can create more crises, especially if they are mentally still “in the basement.”

The two speakers also identified a phenomenon known as swarm intelligence from their studies of the response to the Boston Marathon bombings.

Immediately after the bombing, the researchers began studying the leadership responses. They began by asking various responding agencies who was in charge. “The further along we went, the more we came to the conclusion that nobody was in charge,” Marcus said. “And, yet, they worked together so well, with such extraordinary cooperation.”

The speakers attributed the success of the response to swarm intelligence, a concept that began when scientists wondered how termites were able to create huge structures without a central leadership. “There’s not a commander termite with a blue hat on with a big sheet” telling other termites what to do.

Marcus and McNulty said they the response to the Boston bombing was the first time they had seen this behavior with people, “and we think the first time it’s occurred,” Marcus said. “In this event, the leaders were able to achieve something that we’re identifying as swarm intelligence.”

They have identified five aspects of achieving swarm intelligence, all of which were present during the response to the bombing—unity of mission; generosity of spirit; staying in your lane, or doing your job and trusting that others are doing theirs; no ego, no blame; and a foundation of relationships. “Because nobody broke any of those five rules, in 102 hours, they were able to go from two explosions on Boylston Street to apprehension of the two suspects and bringing the community together.”

“One of the great things about you all coming to a meeting like this,” McNulty said, “you get to meet each other and cross organizational boundaries over a cocktail and get to know each other so you can work together when the worst happens.”