In recent days, the reporting on the horrific events unfolding in Japan has shifted from the technical response to issues such as the critical role of leadership and resilience in the aftermath of a disaster. What would happen in the U.S. if there was a similar disaster? One Harvard program is working to prepare leaders for just such a circumstance.

When the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded April 20, 2010, killing 11 workers, injuring dozens, and spewing thousands of barrels of oil for days into the Gulf of Mexico, the disaster was more than a classroom discussion for some faculty, students and staff of Harvard’s National Preparedness Leadership Initiative (NPLI).

Just days after the incident, NPLI co-director Leonard Marcus, lecturer on public health practice at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), Barry Dorn, adjunct lecturer on health policy and management at HSPH, and NPLI senior editorial associate Eric McNulty were in a different “classroom” – coastal Louisiana studying how the crisis was being led.

“While it took considerable time to get control of the spill, one of the significant accomplishments of the response was the ability to align many different people and organizations to mount the best possible response to this complex event,” Marcus said. He observed that “the many jurisdictional lines of authority – federal, state, and local – and their different priorities for managing the spill greatly complicated the response. The focus of meta-leadership is meeting the challenge of getting these many organizations in concert with each other and collaborating with the private and non-profit sectors. Meta-leadership in practice demands influence well beyond authority, he said.

The NPLI is a joint program of HSPH and the Harvard Kennedy School and is co-directed by Marcus and David Gergen, director of the Center for Public Leadership at HKS. More than 350 emergency preparedness leaders have participated in its executive education program. Established in 2004, the NPLI helps ensure that public officials are prepared to meet the challenges of terrorist events, natural disasters, and disease outbreaks through training and research that reaches across lines of government jurisdiction and into the private sector. The initiative is supported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).