• How Meta-Leaders Mirror Influence

    May 25, 2012

    "You can learn a lot about a leader from his or her facial expressions during a stressful situation," says Leonard J. Marcus, PhD, founding director, Program for Health Care Negotiation and Conflict Resolution at the Harvard School of Public Health. "When leaders get into a panicked situation, we describe their reactions as 'going to the basement,' succumbing to survival instincts that can be very emotional. Other people pick up on the facial expressions and, oftentimes, descend with them directly to the basement."

    "Our 'meta-leadership' curriculum instructs leaders how to get up and out of the basement in times of crisis so they can regain their composure and bring others to the same frame of mind. This is a critical skill set in a hospital, where clinical, management, financial, and personnel crises happen all the time."

    Coined by Marcus, Barry C. Dorn, MD, and their colleagues at Harvard, meta-leadership is a method that helps leaders develop influence well beyond their authority, an important skill base for situations in which different professional groups, departments, and organizations must coordinate decisions and activities.

    "After 9/11, the federal government asked our help in cultivating better leadership and connectivity among government agencies, particularly during crisis situations," says Marcus. "We conducted extensive field research on what was and was not working, getting up close with leaders." Meta-leadership methods were employed by Richard Besser, MD, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during the advent of H1N1 in 2009, and by Coast Guard commandant Admiral Thad Allen during the 2010 Deep Water Horizon Gulf Oil Spill.

    "We brought what we learned in the crisis leadership field back to the healthcare work we have been doing long before 9/11. It is very relevant to all that is happening in health care today."

    Marcus, Dorn, and colleague Eric McNulty recently published a book, Renegotiating Health Care: Resolving Conflict to Build Collaboration (Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2011). "As healthcare organizations strive to achieve both improved quality and controlled spending, leaders who are able to manage cross-discipline, cross-departmental efforts-and the conflicts that arise-are at a premium."

    There are five dimensions to meta-leadership practice:

    • The person of the meta-leader: Meta-leaders lead themselves and others out of the basement by identifying potential strategies to address a problematic situation.
    • The situation: Meta-leaders engage others to get a full understanding of a particular situation or problem.
    • Lead the silo: Meta-leaders are excellent at exacting superior results from their own departments or service lines-in part by empowering staff.
    • Lead up: Meta-leaders interact and communicate with senior leaders to attain desired goals.
    • Lead connectivity: Meta-leaders strategically develop cross-silo linkages to optimize performance.


    Leonard J. Marcus, PhD, is founding director, Program for Health Care Negotiation and Conflict Resolution, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston (ljmarcus@hsph.harvard.edu).