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Leaders of Leaders: Meta-Leadership Summits Build Relationships that Get Results

Published: July 15, 2008

Attendees at the Meta-Leadership Summit in Denver
Over 130 leaders from business, government and non-profit sectors participated in the Denver Meta-Leadership Summit for Preparedness held May 12-13 at the JW Marriot in Denver.

CDC's Coordinating Office for Terrorism Preparedness and Emergency Response (COTPER) is working with the CDC Foundation, the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative – Harvard School of Public Health, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to pilot and then institutionalize a series of learning and networking experiences for leaders called the Meta-Leadership Summits for Preparedness. The objective of the program is to develop a cadre of business, government and nonprofit leaders who are capable and committed to leading across organizations and sectors during a crisis. The program will provide current and future leaders with the skills needed to act more cohesively and effectively in planning for and reacting to urgent public health threats.

Says CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding, "We need to learn how to build connectivity that includes people who are not like us – people in business, people in the faith-based sector, people in the health care delivery system, people in the nonprofit community – and there is one absolutely essential requirement to our capacity to do this kind of collaboration. It is the concept of meta-leadership." During the day-long summits, attendees practice skills necessary for effective action during emergencies; learn how to reach decisions in the face of uncertainty and stress; and identify partnerships that can be leveraged before, during and after a crisis. They also participate in a problem-solving workshop to begin to explore real emergency preparedness problems for their communities and to work through potential resolutions.

Colorado governor Bill Ritter, Jr.
The Governor of Colorado Bill Ritter, Jr., spoke on the State of Preparedness and Response in Colorado during the Denver Meta-Leadership Networking Reception.

Currently, the CDC Foundation is planning for the final pilot summit to be held in New Jersey in August. Four other pilot summits have been held in Columbus, GA; Wichita, KS; Denver, CO; and Louisville, KY. Following the pilot phase, the program will be rolled out across the country to reach leaders in all 50 states.

"At each Meta-Leadership Summit, we are bringing together leaders from organizations and sectors that don't typically work together to prepare for unforeseen challenges in their city or state," says Charles Stokes, president and CEO of the CDC Foundation. "As the program rolls out across the country, the summits will help build a cadre of 'meta-leaders' who are committed to working collaboratively during local or national emergencies."

A meta-leader is a leader of leaders, who mobilizes people and organizations to collaborate in times of crisis. A meta-leader must build strong alliances with a diverse array of leaders before an event occurs. The benefits of the summits in building alliances among leaders have been documented during follow-up evaluations. For example, in Columbus, GA, a university established a relationship with the Department of Homeland Security that resulted in their support in developing table top exercises for fire, tornado, and bomb threats. Meta-Leadership was put to the test in Columbus following a recent hospital shooting. Because officials from the hospital, law enforcement, the Mayor's Office and the Department of Homeland Security had attended and networked at the Summit they were able to work collectively to quickly secure the area, treat the wounded and set up a staging area for media, while maintaining hospital operations.

The mayor's office in Columbus has coordinated several follow-up meetings that brought key member of the community back together in "a safe forum where resources and assets can be discussed." A government sector participant noted, "Each time we meet and bring players back to the table, we learn about resources and assets. We wondered where we would get a resource or asset before. Now, people are offering them in the event of an emergency."

A business-sector participant in Kansas noted, "We wanted to find out the skills of our people before versus after a disaster." The business asked all its managers to participate in a survey that assessed their skills. The business knew it had plenty of engineers, but wanted to find out who among the employees would be available in a disaster and with what skills. A university official commented on how she was able to organize an intruder shooting simulation exercise with the help of local police, fire, emergency management and the hospital. The official attributed the success of the simulation to the participation of individuals whom she met at the Summit.

More recently, in Denver, several post-Summit, multi-sector preparedness meetings have taken place to make ready for and ensure the public's health and safety during the August Democratic National Convention. One of the tangible products that emerged from these meetings was a guidance letter from the Mayor outlining activities to date in the city that concerned businesses, non-profit organizations and other elements of local, state, and regional government could use as a guide to decision-making (See letter at right from Denver Mayor John W. Hickenlooper to concerned stakeholders).

Soon after the Denver Meta-Leadership Summit, Ellis Stanley, Director of Democratic National Convention Planning for Denver's Office of Emergency Management noted, "We looked at Meta-Leadership and understood that means starting at the 'horses head' with the mayor and governor to show the importance of partnering with all levels of government, non-government organizations and the private sector." In the Denver Summit we had to suspend disbelief about our ability to all work together to prepare and work on important emergency issues. A clear message that came out of the summit is the need to communicate both internally and externally to help prepare for a major event in our city. Everyone, employees, leaders, and citizens need to know where they fit in during an event. The letter prepared and distributed by the mayor following the summit will help us prepare to be ambassadors for our city. This is an example of the benefits of thinking in terms of meta-leadership."

"By connecting leaders across sectors, the meta-leadership summits prepare our communities to develop the critical networks that will protect and serve citizens should a disaster strike. We know that during a disaster, a connected community is a resilient community," commented the CDC's Coordinating Office for Terrorism Preparedness and Emergency Response Director, Dr. Richard Besser.

The Meta-Leadership Summits are designed for leaders of business, government, and non-profit organizations who are directly involved in preparing for and responding to emergencies. The next summit is scheduled in August for New Jersey. To learn more, visit The U.S. Government's Official Web PortalDepartment of Health and Human Services
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention   1600 Clifton Rd. Atlanta, GA 30333, USA
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