Meta-Leadership: Closing Preparedness Gaps to Safeguard America

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By Charles Stokes, President and CEO, CDC Foundation

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the deep budget cuts that are straining the capacity of CDC, along with state and local health agencies across the country.  In these tough times, community leaders have to figure out creative ways to help close the gaps to keep America healthy, safe and secure.

One model approach for bringing communities together is the Meta-Leadership Summit for Preparedness.  A “meta-leader” is a leader of leaders – someone who can mobilize people and organizations to collaborate in times of crisis.

The CDC Foundation partnered with CDC, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative (NPLI)-Harvard School of Public Health to host these highly evaluated networking and training events from 2006 to 2011, connecting close to 5,000 business, government and nonprofit leaders in 36 communities representing approximately 139 million Americans.

What makes the Meta-Leadership Summit for Preparedness unique is its focus on cross-sector collaboration.  The initiative evolved after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina underscored the need for leaders to work collaboratively to respond to crises.  The reality is that business, government and nonprofit leaders can do much more working together, than individually.

Harvard faculty Dr. Marcus and Dr. Dorn presenting at Meta-Leadership SummiIt is this reality that led the CDC Foundation, working with CDC, to reach out to Dr. Leonard Marcus and Dr. Barry Dorn at NPLI. Their research and expertise in developing the concept and practice of
meta-leadership has played a key role in shaping strategic thinking on national and international terrorism preparedness and emergency response.  We proposed expanding the meta-leadership training they had been conducting at Harvard for government leaders to community leaders across sectors nationwide.   

Dr. Marcus and Dr. Dorn joined with us, traveling across the country to teach meta-leadership concepts to local leaders. Frontline meta-leaders from CDC and other federal agencies served as their co-presenters, providing real-world perspectives on leading in emergencies.   

Thanks to the generosity of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and local sponsors, thousands of business, government and nonprofit leaders in communities across the country are better prepared to protect Americans from dangerous threats like large-scale disasters or disease outbreaks. 

Long after the Summits ended in June 2011, CDC’s post-Summit team was hard at work bringing participants back together – and casting an even wider net – through more than 30 post-Summit activities that helped leaders tackle their gaps in community preparedness.

Summit locations

Meta-leaders across the nation are working together to build stronger, more connected, more resilient communities. In Minneapolis, for example, the Meta-Leadership Summit was the perfect launch pad for a new Downtown Emergency Advisory Committee.  Formed by the nonprofit Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District, the committee has united a diverse group of business, government and nonprofit partners to host preparedness and training events that protect downtown residents. 

“There was a time when the government could fund everything. Those days are gone,” said Bill Anderson, emergency manager for the City of Minneapolis.  “Today is the day of collaboration between sectors.”

Deanna Harris, a life flight nurse in Cleveland, Ohio, puts meta-leadership into action when she works alongside firefighters, police officers and emergency room personnel.  For Deanna, every second counts – whether she’s rushing to the aid of a premature baby or tending to the elderly victims of a house fire.  Meta-leadership taught Deanna to get her own adrenalin in check and regroup in the face of a crisis. And she learned how to quickly organize people and resources in stressful situations.  Deanna, a member of the Ohio Emergency Medical Services Board, also encourages board members to think creatively about non-traditional resources and partners to strengthen the state’s emergency planning efforts.

In Boston, Mayor Menino held a cross-sector Boston Influenza Preparedness Summit, building on the meta-leadership model.  In Illinois, eight meta-leaders who participated in a fellowship program made the case for the nation’s first Meta-Leadership Institute and applied meta-leadership to specific challenges in their communities including school violence, flu vaccination and diabetes.

Following the Gulf oil spill, Southeast Louisiana meta-leaders developed a proposal template and process for BP-funded emotional support services that are essential to long-term community support. 

Kay Wilkins, CEO, American Red Cross Southeast Louisiana Chapter said, “What the Meta-Leadership Summit did was open avenues to other people and groups we might not have thought about.”

CDC protects people from major health threats 24/7, including catastrophic events. In light of the ongoing budget cuts, helping leaders understand their counterparts’ interests and establishing connectivity to protect the safety of their families, businesses and communities before disaster strikes is crucial.

Learn more: Charles Stokes, president and CEO of the CDC Foundation, wrote an expert commentary about Meta-Leadership  for the December 2011 Trust for America’s Health issue report, Ready or Not? Protecting the Public from Diseases, Disasters, and Bioterrorism. The report finds key programs that detect and respond to bioterrorism, new disease outbreaks and natural or accidental disasters are at risk due to federal and state budget cuts. To learn more about the concept of meta-leadership, visit the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative-Harvard School of Public Health. To learn more about the Meta-Leadership Summit for Preparedness, visit the Meta-Leadership Resource Center .

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One comment on “Meta-Leadership: Closing Preparedness Gaps to Safeguard America”

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this site is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

    As a member of the military’s health care team I can sympathize with your concern over budget cuts affecting your organization’s ability to complete its health care mission. I also firmly agree that better collaboration between organizations at all levels of government is essential to bridging gaps created by lack of funding and ultimately creating a better One Health Team for our nation. The meta-leadership system discussed in your blog appears to be a step in the right direction for emergency preparedness.
    In July 2011 the United States Army identified itself as a key player in the arena of public health with the establishment of the United States Army, Public Health Command (USAPHC). The mission of the USAPHC reads as follows: Promote health and prevent disease, injury, and disability of Soldiers and military retirees, their Families, and Department of the Army civilian employees; and assure effective execution of full spectrum veterinary service for Army and Department of Defense Veterinary missions. Although the technical capabilities (i.e. Environmental Health Engineering, Epidemiology and Disease Surveillance, Health Promotion and Wellness, Health Risk Management, Laboratory Science, Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Occupational Health Science, Toxicology and Veterinary Services) have formerly existed in the Army, combining their capabilities under one command with public health in its title clearly marks them as a public health team. This team is comprised of military leaders serving the military community, which, in itself, is full of military leaders and extends into local civilian communities.
    With the wealth of leadership experience that exists in the military and the bridge between military and civilian communities, hopefully military leaders are given and accept the opportunity to participate in and contribute to programs such as the Meta-Leadership Summit. The sharing of public health capabilities will help ease the effect of our nation’s budgetary woes on the health of its citizens.

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Page last reviewed: April 30, 2012
Page last updated: April 30, 2012