Leonard Marcus and Eric J. McNulty on leadership when it matters most: Part 1 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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Before discussing You’re It, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Marcus: My father. Jack Marcus was a Holocaust survivor. He told me his harrowing stories of near-death experiences from when I was old enough to understand spoken language. When I asked why he shared those stories with me, he said “So, you make sure it never happens again.” A tall order for a six year old. I decided early on that it was organizations and leaders that fueled the horrors. So, I became interested in leadership from a very early age, and was moved by both the greatest and worst I witnessed.

McNulty: My parents, Jim and Beverly McNulty, both supported my education from my earliest days. Though we were of modest means, I was never denied a book and spent a lot of time in museums. Curiosity was encouraged and rewarded.

The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

McNulty: There are many people, not just one. However, the person who most propelled me into my current phase of growth is Angelia Herrin. Angelia was my boss when I was Managing Director for Conferences at Harvard Business Publishing. Actually, partner in crime may be more accurate as we pushed a lot of boundaries to make our events memorable and engaging. Angelia enabled me to make the unusual transition from a business role to an editorial role. She is the one who pushed me onstage in front of large crowd at one of our events. I’ve been writing and speaking a lot since.

Marcus: At mid-career, I was fortunate to be selected as a Fellow for the W.K Kellogg Foundation National Leadership Fellows Program. That experience fortified for me the belief that anything is possible. The then head of the foundation, Russ Mawby, met with us at the opening of the three experience. He told us, “We hope this opportunity will help you find and open doors you never knew existed.” Years later, I was walking into the West Wing of the White House to discuss leadership of disaster response with members of the National Security Council.

Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Marcus: I had a literal front row seat watching leaders of the Katrina response. I was taken to view the devastation that was New Orleans. Despite all the investments, the system failed the city and its people. Two words became emblazoned in my thinking: Leaders matter. It cemented my childhood realization that leaders are at the source of much good and much evil. I wanted to actively support advancing leadership that promote that good.

McNulty: If not for a fluke of the calendar, I would have died on 9/11. I was scheduled to be on American Flight 11 and my trip was moved one day earlier because of the Jewish holidays (lucky me, a Gentile). While it didn’t become clear to me until I discovered the NPLI, realizing that I was given a second chance to give back drives my current work. I am fortunate to work with students who put themselves in harm’s way on a regular basis. If I can help them be more effective, even in a small way, I have had a great day.

Here are a few of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Marcus: Great leaders are also great followers. Combined, people working together and owning together what they accomplish is a starting formula for success.

McNulty: “Leader” as a title is over-rated. “Leading” as an activity is under-appreciated. Real change and tangible progress are as dependent on energy from the bottom up as it is on vision from the top.

From Alvin Toffler: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

Marcus: Start from the stance that we live through points of our own evolution. Be aware of everything that is changing about you. Today, it is essential both for survival and for remaining relevant.

McNulty: A coach I’ve worked with, Kira McGovern, shared something with me that I try to keep front of mind everyday: No one has all of an answer yet everyone may have part of it. You have to stay curious. The parts of Toffler’s quote that I see many leaders and organizations struggling with are “unlearn” and “relearn.” It is as important to let go of what no longer works as it is to continue to accumulate knowledge.

From Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

McNulty: She’s 100% right. The KPIs fade quickly. High performing organizations are led by people who make those around them feel valued, respected, supported, and challenged.

Marcus: Your life is a story and you live it every day. It is an emotional experience, and the peaks and valleys of those emotions – and how other make you feel – stay with you.

From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

Marcus: The world has a bounty of dreamers. We rightly remember the do-ers.

McNulty: I have worked with people who are true visionaries. Their ability to see over the horizon is invaluable. However, they were not all wise enough to hand off execution to those whose feet were actually on the ground. The visionaries who did not do so saw their great ideas fail. I see this blind spot in many entrepreneurs; they are so in love with their idea that they overlook the blocking-and-tackling that it takes to build and run an organization. They dismiss legitimate operational and logistics challenges as lack of commitment from those who raise them.

From Theodore Roosevelt: “People won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Marcus: Passion is an essential ingredient of great leadership.

McNulty: Humans, indeed all mammals, are driven by emotions. Emotional responses drive much more of our thinking and action that we admit because rationality has been put forward as the “right” way to approach things. As one who is trained in economics, I can tell you that this is an artificial construct advanced largely by economists. Recall “rational actor” theory that posited that everyone primarily pursues self-interest. Research in evolutionary biology and behavioral economics has shown this to be false. Altruism and empathy are part of our basic humanity. You can’t connect if you don’t care and if you don’t connect, you aren’t leading.

Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

McNulty: I subscribe to Jim Collins’ notion of having a “don’t do” list. Unless you have discipline about what not to do, it is easy to be sucked into endless busyness with little productivity to show for it. I think that if we freed people to not do that from which they derive or contribute little value, with the exception of compliance activities, you would see a lot of meetings disappear and processes evaporate. Too rarely do we question why we do what we do.

Marcus: We call these people “chargers.” They are pleased to keep themselves busy though they have little idea of where they are going.

What are the defining characteristics of a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive?

Marcus: Everyone uniformly asks of others, “How can I make you a success?” That success of individuals combines into the success of the enterprise. It is a force multiplier for everything everyone is doing.

McNulty: It’s pretty basic though not often found: Do people have permission to take time and spend money on development activities? Have you set learning objectives? In fact, do you raise questions when the people who work for you are not engaged in these pursuits? Organizations have to stop viewing learning as “non-work.” One of the nice things about working at a university is that no one looks at you strangely if you are reading a book between 9 and 5.

Here’s a great way to start: At your next staff meeting, ask people what they’ve learned since the group last got together.

Recent research indicates that, on average, less than 30% of employees in a U.S. company are actively and productively engaged. The others are either passively engaged (“mailing it in”) or actively disengaged, undermining the success of their organization? How do you explain this situation? What’s the problem?

McNulty: As in my response to your Maya Angelou quote, people need to be respected and valued. You can’t expect people to care about your customers and your products or services if you don’t care about them.

Marcus: People don’t care because they have little reason to care. That’s where leadership comes in. Leaders create meaning for themselves and those who follow. If people recognize that what they are doing has a meaning and purpose that is important and bigger than any one person alone, they will give all of themselves. This is why “leadership matters.”

In your opinion, what specifically must be done immediately to increase the percentage of actively and productively engaged employees?

Marcus: Give people a “why” that is genuinely compelling and most will answer the call. Those who don’t probably shouldn’t be on your team.

McNulty: Start treating people as if they matter. I know of too few people who have any real security with regard to their position, health coverage, or retirement. This leads to severe social stress that breeds distraction. And then, give people the freedom to shape their work. You’d be surprised how many meetings and processes are streamlined. Competence and autonomy are two of the principal psychological drivers of satisfaction at work so encourage them.

Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

McNulty: It will be adapting to collective leadership. Many organizations are going to be too complex and too dynamic to be led by a single person. It is going to take a village. The CEO will need to focus on relationships and continually creating clarity of purpose and direction amidst constant change.

Marcus: Keeping apace and keeping relevant. There is no reason to do business with you if you’re not relevant. That requires you to both understand the outside and to be able to adjust the inside.

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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



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