What The Boston Marathon Response Can Teach Us About Ebola: 5 Lessons

The massive and growing Ebola outbreak in West Africa is tragic both in the suffering and deaths among the affected population and in the difficulty of mounting a sufficient response. The number of cases is rising exponentially. We have had the first death in the U.S., the first case of someone contracting the disease in this country and the first case of transmission in Europe. Over the weekend, a man who had recently traveled to Liberia was taken to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center to be evaluated for possible Ebola.

Fear and anxiety are rising.

This has the potential to be the defining public health crisis of the 21st century. Boston has stepped up by sending doctors and other health care professionals with extensive experience and expertise. There is, however, something more that Boston has to share: the leadership lessons from the Boston Marathon bombing response.

(Ebola in Guinea/European Commission HG ECHO/flickr)
(Ebola in Guinea/European Commission HG ECHO/flickr)

After the Marathon, we saw federal, state and local agencies, as well as organizations in the private and non-profit sectors, came together as an integrated enterprise that can serve as a model for the Ebola response. While the two events are quite different, the principles for leadership effectiveness are actually similar.

There are five key interrelated lessons from Boston that can be useful as the world confronts Ebola:

Build A United Effort

An effective Ebola response requires linking and leveraging many organizations into a collaborative, cooperative enterprise, much like we saw in Boston after the bombing.

Unfortunately, large-scale humanitarian missions are too often loosely linked efforts of well-meaning but poorly coordinated activity with preventable gaps and overlaps. The New York Times cites officials calling the response in Sierra Leone, as one example, as “chaotic” and “disorganized.” Affected communities, the responders on the ground and the global public must understand and embrace a clear overarching purpose, the relevant metrics of success and forthright assessments of progress. Articulating these is the work of leaders.

Exercise Generosity Of Spirit And Action

After the Boston bombings, the response from across the region and nation was “what do you need?” Whatever was needed was delivered. The Ebola response is more typical of large-scale crises: Resources are short and this can lead individuals and organizations into defensive postures. Leaders must ask each other, “How can we most effectively contribute to overall success, not just our own success?” “How can we cut through the red tape to make things happen?”

There are times to be out front and there are times when it makes more sense to support someone else’s efforts. It requires leadership courage and wisdom to navigate this tension.

Organizations Should Stay In Their Lanes

A necessary, though sometimes difficult, conversation among the leaders of the major responding organizations and those in the local area involves honestly assessing what each partner can and cannot accomplish, or cannot accomplish alone. In Boston, local police and the National Guard worked hand-in-hand to secure the T after the bombings.

We recommend a three-stage framework for such discussions. Each agency or community should examine the following questions:

•What does my organization can do that the others cannot?

•What do the other organizations do that mine cannot?

•What can multiple groups only accomplish together?

When there is clarity around these types of activities, it is easier to decentralize decision making for an agile response.

No Ego, No Blame

When there is unity of effort, generosity of spirit and the willingness to stay in respective lanes, it is possible to practice what several of the leaders in Boston we interviewed called “collective leadership.”

That is, people felt they were involved in the appropriate decisions and understood why they were not involved in others. Granted autonomy over their agencies’ operations and clarity of purpose, there was a greater openness to collaboration.

There is no faster way to splinter a response than sharp-elbowed jostling for media attention or petty finger pointing. All involved must understand that they succeed or fail together.

Leverage Trust

One of the surprising outcomes of our research on the Boston bombings was that no one was actually in charge of the overall response. As the leaders respected and trusted each other to do a good job in their respective lanes, they were able to achieve order without overarching control. This may be one of the greatest challenges in the Ebola response. While some of the organizations involved have long histories working together, those histories are not without conflict.

The African governments have limited resources and capabilities. There are also many new players. In the rush to contain this awful outbreak, leaders would be well-advised to leverage trust where it exists and intentionally seek out opportunities to foster it.

In nature, variations of these lessons comprise what is known as “swarm intelligence.” Ants, bees and birds build communities, meet threats and find opportunities by following simple rules and social cues.

As we work to end this epidemic, we must remember the example of the humble ants, put down our individual agendas and remember that we are better together. We humans must demonstrate the same degree of swarm intelligence and collective leadership demonstrated in Boston in April 2013. Lives depend upon it.

Leonard Marcus, Barry Dorn, Richard Serino and Eric McNulty are with Harvard’s National Preparedness Leadership Initiative. Serino is the former deputy administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.


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