Leonard J. Marcus and Eric J. McNulty on how to lead when it matters most: Part 2 of an interview by Bob Morris

Leonard Marcus is a trailblazer in leadership studies and teaching. Shortly after 9/11, the federal government asked him and the Kennedy School’s David Gergen to establish the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative (NPLI) at Harvard University. The purpose: to study critical homeland security and emergency management leadership challenges facing the country and then to develop leadership strategies, analysis and methodologies to meet new contingencies. Marcus is given rare access to senior national leaders during crucible times of emergency: Hurricane Katrina, Deep Water Horizon, Boston Marathon bombings, H1N1, Ebola, Hurricane Sandy, and others.

Lenny is lead author of the 2019 book You’re It: Crisis, Change and How to Lead When It Matters Most, published by PublicAffairs Press. His breadth of analysis and capacity to translate complex problems into workable solutions has allowed him to engage a wide range of leaders and constituencies. Prior to 9/11, Dr. Marcus’ focus was on health care leadership, negotiation and conflict resolution, work that he avidly continues. He is lead author of the primary text for the field, Renegotiating Health Care: Resolving Conflict to Build Collaboration, first published in 1995 when it received the “Book of the Year Award” from the Center for Public Resources Institute for Alternative Dispute Resolution. It was re-issued in a revised Second Edition in 2011.

Eric J. McNulty serves as associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, a joint program of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Previously, he was editor at large and director of conferences for Harvard Business Publishing. Prior to Harvard, Eric held a number of communications roles in the private sector.

McNulty is a contributing editor at strategy+business. He has written for Harvard Business Review, O’Reilly Media, Sloan Management Review, Worthwhile magazine, and other publications. His case studies written for Harvard Business Review have been used in numerous professional and academic settings. He is the co-author of Renegotiating Healthcare: Resolving Conflict to Build Collaboration and author of the e-books, Your Critical First 10 Days as a Leader and Three Critical Shifts in Thinking for the Evolving Leader (both from O’Reilly Media) He teaches in graduate and professional education programs at Harvard as well as executive programs at MIT and the University of California, San Diego, Health.

He received his B.A. in Economics from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and his M.A. in Leadership from Lesley University. In his Master’s work, McNulty examined leadership in the context of system-scale change such as global urbanization, climate change, aging populations, and increasing technological connectivity. He draws inspiration for exploring organizational behavior and structure by studying both nature and cities.

Their book, You’re It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When It Matters Most, was co-authored with Joseph M. Henderson and Barry C. Dorn, and published by PublicAffairs (June 2019).

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Now let’s focus on You’re It. For those who have not as yet read it, hopefully your responses to these questions will stimulate their interest and, better yet, encourage them to purchase a copy and read the book ASAP. First, when and why did you decide to write it, and do so in collaboration with Joe Henderson and Barry C. Dorn?

Marcus: Our team came together after 9/11. Sometime around 2009, we realized that we had something to say that was unique and important. Following upon our research on the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, we recognized this work could have tremendous impact on people – leaders – responsible for saving people’s lives. That was a compelling reason to spread the message. The book opens with the Marathon bombings story.

McNulty: As we shift from “leader” to “leading,” we see many more people with the capacity and capability to lead no matter where they sit in an organization. We hope that we can provide concepts, tools, and examples to help them be more effective. Writing the book gave us the opportunity to discover more examples of meta-leadership through our interviews; its publication allows us to engage with a much broader audience that we’ll ever get to meet in person.

Writing it with Lenny, Joe, and Barry was both a pleasure and an adventure. Through my career, I experienced working at large organizations and startups. I had been an entrepreneur, intrapreneur, and a bit of a corporate rebel. In my time at Harvard Business Publishing, I was fortunate to spend time with leadership experts such as Warren Bennis, Gary Hamel, and Marcus Buckingham among others. That informed my perspective. That view was greatly expanded by Lenny, who brought expertise in negotiation and conflict resolution as well as the inquisitiveness of an academic. Barry had led surgical teams and even an entire hospital. He was someone who had to make life-and-death decisions. Joe served in positions where he had thousands of people reporting up to him. Together, we have debated, taught, and analyzed the principles of meta-leadership for more than a decade. I think that the distinctiveness of the model and tools reflect the combined insights of our collective experience.

Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

McNulty: It was fascinating to uncover how people as diverse as CEOs, military officers, community organizers, and government officials were on distinct journeys yet actually forged a common path to excellence.

Marcus: Yes. The leaders of the Marathon response took our understanding of Meta-Leadership, the central theme of the book, up a notch. We began to understand that the same innate brain circuitry that guides the collective behaviors and accomplishments of primitive creatures also remains in our human thinking and behaviors. We are social animals and with the right stimulation and guidance, leaders can rally those instincts to achieve collectively more than anyone can accomplish alone. That turned “swarm intelligence” into “swarm leadership.”

To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Marcus: Putting the book together was a process of discovery. We believe leadership itself is a process of discovery. Our first notions of the book are very different than what we ended up with.

McNulty: One of my favorite quotes comes from Aristotle: “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” As we worked through writing the book, it became clear that there was so much more to know. Leadership is not really a single discipline; it is the synthesis of psychology, sociology, organizational behavior, neuroscience, game theory, and much more—and then turning that knowledge into action. Even stories we thought we knew and concepts we had taught for years showed new dimensions as we crafted the narrative.

The process of writing a book length manuscript, particularly with co-authoring one, makes you look at every word to decide if you are conveying the exact intended meaning as concisely as possible. It makes you ensure that there is continuity from idea to idea and tool to tool. When we teach, we typically take a session individually or in pairs. For the book, everything had to have our shared voice and vision. Through this process, we found gaps to fill and overlaps to eliminate.

In my review of your book for various Amazon websites, I presume to suggest that “We’re It” would also be an appropriate title, given the fact that — with rare exception — more than one person is needed to respond effectively to a crisis, whatever its nature and extent may be. Your own thoughts about that?

McNulty: Your point is well-taken. I think that it is our long narrative tradition built on a protagonist and antagonist that pushes us, over time, to see complex events through the exploits of a single person. We long for a hero and a villain. Yes, there are critical actions by individuals that shape events yet those activities take place in relation to the acts of others. We are fortunate that “you” is both a singular and plural pronoun.

Marcus: The word “you” has two meanings – singular and plural – and we have been clear that meta-leadership is a combination of both. We wanted to emphasize this notion of singular as well as collective responsibility. That is why “You’re It” pointedly accepts the notion that without you, singular or plural, the ‘why’ and the ‘what’ needed won’t happen.

In your opinion, what is the best example of a business leader who has provided meta-leadership “when it matters most.”

Marcus: The story of Jimmy Dunne in the book. He recognized the leadership needed in the moment, and even though that was not who he was originally, he stood up to take the responsibility. He knew people were looking to him with a clear and compelling need, “You’re It!” And he was able to coalesce numerous people and together he conveyed to them, if we’re going to pull ourselves out of this, “You’re it.” And people followed him just as he followed people.

McNulty: I concur with Lenny on Jimmy Dunne though I also think that the story of Budge Upton is remarkable. In part, this is because he led in much less dramatic circumstances. Upton was the project manager for the renovation and expansion of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Actually, he was the fourth project manager. This was a massively complex project with a firm deadline, a finite budget, a high profile—and the existing galleries of the museum had to remain open and the artwork undisturbed throughout. Upton actually had little authority over many key stakeholders. He deftly used influence to lead everyone from union laborers to high-powered trustees to a successful outcome.

In your opinion, what is the best way to prepare people — at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise — to provide the leadership needed when it matters most, especially today when the world seems so much more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous than at any prior time that I can recall?

McNulty: The greater clarity you can provide on the organization’s true purpose, the values that guide it, and the measures of success, the easier it is for people to step up to lead. And you have to support them when they do. Pointing to quarterly returns expectations is no longer sufficient (and were only ever relevant in the private sector). Point smart people at the problem, give them the freedom to solve it, and prepare to be amazed.

Marcus: Give people the ideas and the tools and when the “why lead?” is readily apparent and people will step up and take the challenge. Humans are fundamentally social beings and we are primed to take care of one another. And yes, there certainly are evil impulses in there as well. We hope to raise the best in people.

What are the defining characteristics of a “meta-leader’?

McNulty: They know themselves and always seek to know more about their people and the world in which they operate. Meta-leaders are relentlessly curious and eager to surround themselves with smart, strong colleagues. That makes them effective problem solvers.

Marcus: They see the big picture and its complexities. They devise solutions that are equally big and complex. This is how they are different from more narrowly defined leaders, who often think in more parochial, siloed terms.

In your opinion, which of the U.S. Presidents offers the best example? Please explain.

Marcus: I was eight years old when John F. Kennedy assumed the Presidency. He lived in an exciting time when almost anything seemed possible, both good and bad. He had the courage to think and act expansively and that inspiration lives on today.

McNulty: While it may seem clichéd, I have to opt for Abraham Lincoln. He led the nation through some of its darkest hours. He was wise enough to assemble what Doris Kearns Goodwin memorably called the “team of rivals” to bring diverse perspectives to governing. He was generous in spirit and action as he sought to knit the country back together after the Civil War. He was reflective. And he took the “meta” view in that he grasped what America could be both as an abstract concept and as a tangible reality for its citizens. We could use more Lincolnesque leadership today.

Opinions are divided — sometimes sharply divided — about charisma. In your opinion, to what extent (if any) is possessing it essential to meta-leadership?

McNulty: Charisma cultivated for its own sake is so-called charm that soon wears thin. As shorthand for central casting looks, it is hollow. Those who are truly charismatic derive that quality through their genuine interest in and commitment to others. People see the best of their hopes and aspirations in that person. In that sense, it is essential to meta-leadership.

Marcus: Charisma is important though it is often over-rated. There are people with great charisma who use it to rally people and accomplish a lot. In that way, their charisma is a bonus. At the same time, there are people with charisma who are assumed to be leaders though they accomplish little. That charisma brings them a lot of attention, though in the end, so what? Likewise, there are many great leaders who quietly accomplish a great deal. Why? Because, the attention is less on the leader and more on what people are collectively doing.

Here’s another question I have been eager to ask you since I first read the book. What are the defining characteristics of a meta-follower?

Marcus: See my previous comments.

McNulty: Meta-followers understand how their work fits into the larger picture. With that knowledge and their distinct perspective, they are well-equipped to help the meta-leader set relevant priorities, make good decisions, and avoid pitfalls. Meta-followers are not afraid to tell truth to power. Meta-leaders are not afraid to hear it. In fact, they welcome it.

It is interesting to ask where leadership lives. Many point to the person in the leadership position—leadership as a collection of personal qualities. There is school of thought to which I subscribe that leadership actually lives in the relationship between people. Leaders and followers each contribute to that equation. I am reminded of a quote from Warren Bennis, “I am reminded how hollow the label of leadership sometimes is and how heroic followership can be.”

Warren and I were very close friends and that is one of my favorites among his countless observations. Thank you for including it. Stephen Covey once observed, “Most of us spend too much time on what is urgent and not enough time on what is important.” What do you think about that?

McNulty: There is a great temptation to validate oneself as a leader by being constantly needed. In fact, a truly effective leader should be able to step back and watch her followers achieve great things because she has made the goal clear, helped followers develop the necessary skills and confidence, and created the necessary space with the resources to succeed. Executives should be ruthlessly delegating so that they have time to focus on the bigger picture and longer-term planning.

Marcus: Don’t lose sight of your priorities and what is important.

I agree with you about the importance of effective collaboration.  However different they may be in most other respects, what do all great teams share in common?

Marcus: The five principles of swarm leadership that we outline in the book.

McNulty: Trust is the connective tissue that creates a great team. There is no substitute. With trust comes focus on the mission rather than watching one’s back. Trust also fosters psychological safety which our HBS colleague, Amy Edmondson, has shown is critical for a high-performing team. Trust enable the team to adapt as its challenges evolve.

I also agree with you about the importance of having a cohesive and comprehensive contingency plan in place, and update it whenever necessary. In your opinion, what are the most important dos and don’ts to keep in mind when formulating?

McNulty: To paraphrase President Dwight Eisenhower, “Plans are useless but planning is indispensable.” The great value of planning is envisioning possible future scenarios and therefore what will need to be done, what resources will be needed, what decisions will need to be made, etc. The rigor of thinking and chance to build relationships are the greatest value of planning.

Following the steps of a plan helps get one “out of the basement” by demonstrating self-competence. However, no crisis ever reads your plan so don’t expect the plan to hold all of the answers. If it did, the situation wouldn’t be a crisis.

Keep your plans as concise as possible. A four-inch binder with lots of tabs is not going to be particularly useful in a crisis. Checklists and guiding principles are more valuable than dense documentation.

Marcus: Be ready to pivot when the situation demands. The plan is a way to foretell just what that situation could be and how best to pivot. Best to do it beforehand with a clear mind and with time to prepare for whatever could occur.

In your opinion, which of the material you provide in You’re It will be most valuable to those now preparing for a career in business or who have only recently embarked on one? Please explain.

Marcus: Connect with other people and be a presence.

McNulty: I encourage those early in their careers to pay special attention to the journaling questions at the end of each chapter. Take the time to answer them. Developing the practices of reflection and introspection will pay enormous dividends in business and in life.

To first-time supervisors? Please explain.

McNulty: Read the chapter on influence and the chapter on authority carefully. As a first-time supervisor, you may be wielding formal authority for the first time. It is common to rely too much on that authority. Use it judiciously and treat your team the way you would like to be treated.

Marcus: Be a role model for those who see you as their leader.

To the owner/CEOs of small-to-midsize companies? Please explain.

Marcus: Be ready and willing to innovate faster than others in your marketplace. Write a narrative that distinguishes you and then perform better than others.

McNulty: Leaders of SMEs often must rely more on a broad ecosystem rather than an abundance of internal resources. Therefore, I’d would pay particular attention to the material on building connectivity. Relationships are everything!

Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

McNulty: What is the greatest change you hope the book makes in the practice of leadership?

I would like people to get over the tights-and-cape school of “leader as superhero.” I hope that people come to see leadership as a craft. As with any craft, your journey is one of increasing mastery through practice. I have to credit Joe Henderson with continually emphasizing this point. Becoming a leader isn’t something you achieve, like a merit badge. Becoming a leader is embracing the commitment to pursue mastery; to putting in the hard work to be ever more worthy of following.

I like a quote from Des Linden, the women’s winner of the 2018 Boston Marathon. While she is speaking of running, I think that her thoughts fit perfectly with what it means to lead. “Some days it just flows and I feel like I’m born to do this, other days it feels like I’m trudging through hell. Every day, I show up and see what I’ve got, and to try and be better.”

Marcus: What do you hope a reader gets out of You’re It?

We encourage readers to write their own book on leadership, one that is theirs, that they own. We hope the questions at the end of each chapter encourage the introspection and action that make reading the book a unique and compelling experience for each person who takes the time. In other words, we want the book to be yours and then once it is, that you will take what you gained for yourself and do good that is uniquely you.

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Lenny and Eric cordially invite you to check out the resources at these websites:

You’re It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When it Matters Most

The National Preparedness Leadership Initiative

Cambridge Meta-leadership

Meta-leadership videos on YouTube


Here is a direct link to Part 1 of this interview.



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