While the business world devours the work of author Malcolm Gladwell and waits for its next great “outlier,” leaders of the nation’s homeland security mission have a new buzzword of their own: “meta-leadership.” A meta-leader, according to the concept’s creators, exerts influence beyond his or her authority—and does so not for self-advancement, but to further a shared goal.
While there have always been great meta-leaders, the concept did not come into focus and get a name until after 9-11, when a handful of top minds in management and public policy observed one of the primary challenges of the new era: coordinating efforts across organizations and sectors toward the shared goals of preparedness, response, and recovery.
The anthrax attacks of 2001 typified that challenge, calling for a coordinated response among the FBI, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Department of Health and Human Services, plus state and local partners. Leonard Marcus and Dr. Barry Dorn of Harvard University’s National Preparedness Leadership Initiative were watching.
“We realized that there were unique examples of people who were able to strategically link different agencies to build a connectivity of effort, and the impact of what they were able to accomplish was very different than what we had seen in the past,” Marcus says.
The pair, working with CDC Chief-of-Staff Joe Henderson and retired Col. Dr. Isaac Ashkenazi, the former surgeon general of the Israel Defense Forces, would eventually define meta-leadership as the ability to provide “guidance, direction, and momentum across organizational lines” in such a way that the varied efforts of people across multiple agencies “develops into a shared course of action and commonality of purpose.”
According to Marcus and his colleagues, the meta-leader has 10 characteristics, among them the common virtues of courage and persistence as well as traits like curiosity, emotional intelligence, and keen sensitivity to organizational cultures.
Going further, they offer the five dimensions of meta-leadership, the first being the meta-leader’s mind-set in a crisis. The meta-leader stays out of what Marcus calls “the basement” of the brain, where he or she has only the primal options of “fight, flight, or freeze.” Instead, meta-leaders tap their higher toolbox of thought and function. Second, the meta-leader maintains situational awareness and third, leads his or her own “silo.”
But it is in the final two dimensions that the meta-leader stands out from the traditional top-down leader: Fourth, the meta-leader “leads-up” by candidly educating and informing superiors who may not be subject-matter experts in the issue at hand. Fifth, and most importantly, the meta-leader reaches across silos, facilitating connectivity and exercising influence.
Who is a great meta-leader? Marcus points to Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen, who soon after 2005 Hurricane Katrina took command of the federal hurricane response in the Gulf region.
“He had to engage a number of political leaders and other agencies to coordinate a vast array of activity, and he was really good about reaching out, engaging, listening, and trying to make sure that everybody was strategically moving in the same direction. It was really tough,” Marcus says.
Allen’s most important traits: courage, candor with his superiors, and curiosity. “He asked really good questions,” Marcus says. “He would say, ‘Okay, this is the information you’ve given me, but what’s missing?’”
Marcus and his peers are spreading the gospel of meta-leadership with help from the nonprofit CDC Foundation, which has sponsored nearly 20 Meta-leadership Summits for Preparedness around the country.
Led by the architects of the concept, the summits bring together a region’s key leaders from the government, business, and nonprofit sectors. They focus not as much on the individual practice of meta-leadership, as on its end-state in which regions identify capabilities, resources, and needs, and then share that information to maximize preparedness.
Robert Maloney, director of the Baltimore Mayor’s Office of Emergency Management, participated in one of the summits. “Over the course of the day we identified ‘gaps,’ ‘gives,’ and ‘gets.’ And we tried to marry the ‘gives’ and the ‘gets’ to fill the gaps,” he says.
Grayson Gill, a senior managing director for CB Richard Ellis Asset Services in Dallas and also a summit participant, offered an example from his own city. Plans for mortuary services following a mass-casualty event called for the city to lease refrigerated tractor-trailers. Instead, a city food distributor with large-scale, in-house refrigeration capacity offered the city use of its facilities in the event of a disaster, Gill says. In this case, the food distributor’s actions exemplify meta-leadership, because the business looked outside its own sector to identify a need in another that it could satisfy to forward the cause of preparedness.
With that case in point, Gill says meta-leadership could be considered “a how-to manual for public-private partnerships.”