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What Should Crisis Leadership Look Like?

Last week, The New Yorker placed an article online titled “What Should Crisis Leadership Look Like?” Prominently quoted in that article was Vice Admiral Peter Neffenger (Ret.), who was appointed in 2015 to lead the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), a position he held until January 2017. Before this he enjoyed a distinguished 34-year career in the U.S. Coast Guard, including serving as the 29th Vice Commandant and as the Deputy National Incident Commander for the 2010 BP Gulf oil spill, the largest and most complex in U.S. history. He is a recognized expert in national security and crisis leadership, with an MPA from Harvard University; an MA from the U.S. Naval War College; an MA from Central Michigan University; and a BA from Baldwin Wallace University. He is a two-time recipient of the Department of Homeland Security’s Distinguished Service Medal, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Harvard University’s National Preparedness Leadership Initiative and a Distinguished Fellow at the Atlantic Council.
We reached out to Vice Admiral Neffenger to ask him to write an introduction to The New Yorker article and he graciously agreed.

During my long career in crisis leadership and management I often wondered why the most challenging and complex crisis events were frequently the ones in which people seemed to work together to greatest effect. I would watch repeatedly as a culture of selflessness evolved among individuals and teams, with rivalries set aside, egos shelved, and collective effort the norm.  This question stayed with me, so after leaving my federal career, I accepted a Senior Fellowship with the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative (NPLI), a joint program of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Harvard Kennedy School Center for Public Leadership. The entire focus of the NPLI, founded in the aftermath of 9/11, is on identifying what makes for effective leadership in crisis and translating their discoveries into practical training and tools for crisis leaders.  I like to think of the NPLI as the “Burning Man” for crisis leaders.

Well, as it turns out we have now all become crisis leaders as we confront one of the most challenging and complex crisis events of our lives – the COVID-19 global pandemic.  The question of what makes for effective leadership in crisis suddenly really matters to every single one of us, not just those responders to whom we have traditionally turned for leadership.

So, when the New Yorker Magazine asked my colleagues at the Harvard NPLI, “What Should Crisis Leadership Look Like?”, I was excited to be a small part of the conversation.  Because, as it turns out, crisis leadership should look a lot like, and indeed, can learn a lot from the “swarm intelligence” that forms among animals and insects to such powerful effect. So, as fellow curious and inquisitive students of crisis leadership, I hope you find this article about swarm intelligence as illustrated by the response to the Boston Marathon Bombing intriguing, valuable, and most importantly, immediately useful in thinking about how best to navigate through this pandemic.

How we act during crisis determines what we look like when the crisis ends.

Vice Admiral Peter Neffenger, USCG (ret)
Distinguished Senior Fellow, National Preparedness Leadership Initiative,
Harvard University
[email protected]


What Should Crisis Leadership Look Like?

The animal kingdom offers unexpected guidance for how we might respond to the pandemic.

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