A public memorial after the Boston bombings

A public memorial after the Boston bombings

I spent several hours watching the first House hearing on the Boston bombings last week. Witnesses included retired Senator Joe Lieberman, Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis, MA Undersecretary for Homeland Security Kurt Schwartz, and USC professor Erroll Southers. Watch and make your own judgements about this specific hearing. What is important for meta-leaders is to understand the three phases of crisis narrative:

The anticipatory narrative comes before the incident. It is largely shaped by the professional preparedness and response community and captures what they think will happen and how they plan to respond should the worst occur. It is largely invisible to the public. This scenario planning is used to allocate and justify resources as well as to shape both strategic and tactical plans.  In Boston, special events have long been used as opportunities to exercise crisis plans. Richard Serino, former head of Boston EMS and now deputy administrator of FEMA, was a vocal advocate for such planning and much of the success of the Boston response can be tied back to a decade of interagency training and exercises based on such scenarios.

The reactive narrative unfolds during the incident. It is composed on the information flowing in real time, parts of which will amplified by the media. It can include fact as well as speculation. The reactive narrative is shaped by statements by officials, witness accounts, pundit commentary, social media chatter, and more. There may be many versions until there is enough confirmed information to constitute a generally accepted account.

The legacy narrative is the story of how the event will be remembered and judged. Congressional hearings are an important part of the legacy narrative: sometimes they capture important, revealing testimony; at other times they showcase cheap political potshots. In either case, they are a foundational element of the historical record along with books and long-form journalism pieces that are written after the event. The legacy narrative will be mined for academic inquiry as well as political advantage for years and, in some cases, decades.

In this hearing, Lieberman led off the testimony and lost no time in labeling the Boston bombings a failure of the intelligence agencies. He believed that it could, and should, have been prevented. As a longtime Beltway insider, Lieberman was clearly intentional in influencing the legacy narrative. He said that his standard was no successful terrorist incidents ever again on U.S. soil. Anything short of that is unacceptable to him and, he implied, should be for the American public as well. Lieberman no longer seeks public office so it may be safe for him to hold others to a standard of perfection. His goal may have been to catalyze increased vigilance or to tarnish the Obama administration. I will let others judge his motives.

Leaders still active in their careers should be wary of the temptation to offer a perfect future as salve to a wounded public or anxious press corps. As colleague Juliette Kayyem of the Harvard’s Kennedy School counsels, “never say never again” because that is a standard outside of a leader’s control. Leaders should also be aware that the legacy narrative can take on a life of its own and may or may not remain tethered to one’s own anticipatory or reactive narratives. Lieberman’s testimony gathered the greatest attention in press coverage of the hearing and will likely echo for some time to come.

Davis and Schwartz were much more positive in their testimony. They saw the response to the event as a success. Most judge it to have been remarkable: survivors were dispersed effectively to area hospitals.  No one who was taken to a hospital died. Law enforcement agencies collaborated effectively and with minimal acrimony. Their legacy narrative is tied tightly to the anticipatory narrative that they knew well: yes, the event was horrific but professional responders and the public acted heroically and competently. Lives were saved. The response went as planned.

Failure or success? It depends upon your perspective, your concerns, and your reference points. The lesson is for leaders, particularly those operating in or near a political environment, to acknowledge and attend to all three phases of the narrative of crisis. Tell your story or someone else will tell it for you.