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Volume 32, Issue 3

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improvingAchieving optimal situational awareness is critical in any disaster response. The more complicated the event, the more difficult the task. There has been significant investment in incident command and management systems that clarify organizational structures, domains of authority, lines of responsibility, and common operating pictures (COP). These are excellent tools but they are insufficient for disaster response leadership. A view that encompasses the deeper, more complex dimensions of any crisis is required.

At the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative (NPLI), a joint program of the Harvard School of Public Health and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, the meta-leadership framework and practice method has been developed by observing leaders in high-stakes, high-pressure situations including large-scale natural and man-made disasters. One recent example: NPLI faculty and staff observed the slowly unfolding Deepwater Horizon disaster at the behest of Rear Admiral (RDML) Peter Neffenger of the US Coast Guard, Deputy National Incident Commander to Admiral (ADM) Thad Allen, commandant of the US Coast Guard, and presidential-appointed national incident commander.

The Deepwater Horizon Incident

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon offshore oil spill was the largest catastrophe of its kind in history. Eleven workers were killed and the platform burned for two days before it sank to the sea floor, more than 5,000 feet below. Oil spewed from the blown well for 87 days, while some 50,000 people from state, federal and local agencies were tasked with responding to the evolving crisis. In 2010 it was estimated over $13 billion was spent in response costs alone; with BP setting aside $20 billion in escrow funds to pay damages to individual claimants for business losses and to state and local governments for on-going clean-up efforts. Wired Science noted that if the Mississippi Delta were valued similar to a revenue generating company, the aggregate losses stemming from the Deepwater Horizon blowout would be in the range of $350 billion to $1 trillion.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster is an example of enumerable response challenges on multiple levels by many actors and agencies, coupled with the severe economic, environmental and psychosocial consequences that still reverberate today. Fundamentally, it appears that the breakdown of communication and collaboration between companies, NGOs, and government led to worsening an already untenable situation. The Economist pointed out in the one-year retrospective on the disaster that organizational ambiguity was the primary driver of the response effort where coordination under the Join Incident Command failed to temper squabbling between federal, state and local officials about who should lead the particulars of the response.

Dorn-McNulty_graphic_optFrom a leadership perspective, the Deepwater Horizon disaster was a complex national event with emergent and divergent contingencies, requirements and responsible actors with mission critical activities, often at odds or inadvertently causing interference in the execution of situational actions. Like any incident of this scale, the oil spill and response required in actuality leadership of many events:

1) an environmental impact event;

2) a large global corporate event;

3) a small business event;

4) a legal event;

5) a political event;

6) an engineering event;

7) a media event;

8) a public relations event;

9) a federal event;

10) a state event;

11) a local or “parish” event;

12) a policy event.

Each of these events had its own dynamics, timelines, and priorities in the minds of the different parties involved in the response. For a leader, situational awareness must incorporate each of these “events” to inform a comprehensive and unified approach to the response.

The Meta-Leadership Framework and Situational Awareness

The meta-leadership framework comprises five dimensions:

1. the person of the meta-leader comprising self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and one’s personal experience;

2. the situation or context in which one must lead;

3. leading down to one’s organizational base;

4. leading up or delivering on the expectations of one’s superiors;

5. leading across to promote connectivity among people or organizations over which the leader has not direct control.

All five dimensions are utilized to varying degrees in developing situational awareness necessary for effective response leadership.

A COP ensures everyone sees a common set of facts. This is important. However, each individual will interpret those facts somewhat differently because each person has different experience, expertise, biases, and preferences. That is why the meta-leadership framework begins with the person: having the capacity to be self-aware and cognizant of others’ perceptions, the leader will more accurately comprehend the situation and integrate input from others. Being able to integrate multiple sources of information, both objective and subjective, is central to situational awareness.

The meta-leader must traverse a four-step process to perceive what is happening, understand what it means, predict what is most likely to happen next, and decide what actions to take in order to respond or mitigate the negative impact of the threat at hand – what we call the PUPD loop. The primary activity in developing accurate situational awareness thus occurs at the intersection of Dimension One, the person, and Dimension Two, the facts that comprise the situational reality. The secondary activity occurs in Dimensions Three, Four, and Five, domains of action.

Leading one’s organizational base, Dimension Three, allows the leader to deploy resources over which s/he has direct control and also provides the leader with a valuable channel for both gathering and disseminating information. A well-led organizational unit begins with loyalty flowing down from the leader to followers; only then will loyalty flow back to the leader. A leader who cultivates followers who can tell truth to power will received valuable, unvarnished information essential to accurate situational awareness. A well-led organizational unit will also project a halo of competence that allows the leader to exert influence beyond his or her authority.

In the Deepwater Horizon response, the unit which federal leaders led comprised rapidly assembled teams from multiple agencies each with a distinct culture, jargon, and history. During the time in which she was observed RDML Mary Landry, the initial unified incident commander, did an excellent job of assimilating these disparate entities into a cohesive operational response team. More problematic, however, was integration of other state, local, and private sector resources not in the formal response plan.

Leading up, Dimension Four, requires the inverse of Dimension Three: the leader must cultivate a relationship with an authority in which the leader appreciates the boss’ perceptions and priorities, and integrates them into evolving situational awareness. The leader must speak truth to power, ultimately shaping the situational awareness of the authority.

In the case of Deepwater Horizon, National Incident Commander Thad Allen was appointed by President Obama yet reported both to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and, effectively, to the president. To succeed he had to have acute situational awareness of the political aspects of the incident as well as the technical components of the response. He had to balance the engineers’ expectation that closing the spewing well would take “weeks” with the politicians’ desire – driven by aggressive media, an agitated public, and anxious business people – to have “days” as the answer.

Leading across, Dimension Five, is perhaps the most complex in any incident as it relies on influence in the absence of authority. It requires creating connectivity that facilitates the free flow of information across a range of entities each with its own priorities and objectives. Wherever possible, this connectivity is best established prior to an incident free from the pressures that are inherent in an immediate response.

In the Deepwater Horizon response, this involved the federal leaders leading across – not down – to state leaders who had their own resources as a result of initial payments from BP to each of the affected states. These states were also accustomed to responses governed by the Stafford Act under which federal money flowed to state and local entities who, in turn, undertook the appropriate actions. In this case, under the National Contingency Plan, federal officials were directing the activity and their choices did not always align with the preferences of state or local officials. Understanding of the situational awareness of each of these officials was critical for informing the federal leaders understanding the potential impact of their actions.

It also required crafting a delicate relationship with BP, the official “responsible party.” On the one hand leaders had to collaborate, as BP was paying for the response and possessed the expertise necessary to cap the errant well. On the other hand, the media and public were clamoring for a combative relationship in which BP would be treated harshly for its actions and its original disaster response plan which was, according to the National Commission report on the incident, wholly inadequate.

Finally, and perhaps least well executed, was leading across to the media which shaped the situational awareness of many stakeholders including political figures and the public. The oil flow issue is illustrative. When the media became aware of underwater video of the disgorging oil, demands quickly emerged that it be made public and that the exact rate of flow be calculated. BP, owner of the video, initially resisted. Government responders were not concerned as their response plan and actions were based on the estimated worst case flow, not actual flow. Initial official estimates proved to be far too low though actual flow was still less than the worst case scenario governing the response. Leaders’ actions reflected poor situational awareness of the non-technical aspects of situation: they were perceived as hiding information and gave credence to charges of incompetence. Their credibility was significantly damaged.


Incident leadership is distinct from, yet complementary to, incident management. Crisis leadership takes management infrastructure and blends those responsive structures into a unity of effort across all stakeholder organizations and sectors. Crisis leadership fosters connectivity of purpose across “whole communities” which catalyzes communication, collaboration, adaptation and decision making.

A large-scale disaster is a multi-faceted event that requires a multi-dimensional approach to situational awareness and leadership that goes beyond that provided by incident management tools. The meta-leadership framework and practice method facilitates perception of the complete expanse of the response system making dependencies and interdependencies more visible. It does not make the decisions easier but it makes the decision points and impact more comprehensible.

In the end, people will determine the success or failure of any crisis response. Those leaders who have employed the dimensional aspects of leading can exercise influence outside or beyond their authority, build essential connectivity of action necessary to mount a systematic effort cross sectors and agencies, and with such an unprecedented event at DWH, demonstrate the critical situational skill set to frame an inclusive response to a complex, unpredictable, and game-changing disaster.

Dr. Barry C. Dorn is associate director of and Eric J. McNulty is senior editorial associate at the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative. Dr. Leonard Marcus, Dr. Isaac Ashkenazi, and Joseph Henderson also contributed to the development of concepts presented in this article.