Out of the crisis: Management lessons from the 117th Boston Marathon

Article by John Gelder

As the world knows by now, on April 15th, 2013, the planet’s most famous marathon was marred by tragic events. While there remain many unanswered questions about the motives behind the bombings, there has been near universal praise for the manner in which authorities handled the crisis and its aftermath. As both a management consultant and a Boston Marathoner who was there to witness the incident firsthand, I would like to offer a few observations about what management lessons might be gleaned from the Boston experience.

Managing a crisis of this magnitude is no mean feat. The finish line chute on Boylston Street and the area around Copley Square in the heart of downtown Boston are normally crowded with thousands of runners and spectators. At approximately 2:50 pm, the time of the blasts, more than 5,000 of the 23,000 runners were still on the course.

Responders needed to act swiftly and decisively to gain control of the situation. Among the challenges: triaging the 180 or so victims in the immediate vicinity of the explosions, many with severe blast injuries; securing and cordoning off the area; and ensuring the safety of those not immediately affected. Of paramount concern was determining whether or not more bombs had been planted in and around the vicinity or throughout greater Boston. With the ground littered with thousands of runners’ bags and backpacks, the risk of more explosions was considerable.

Fortunately, the Boston Marathon is well staffed with emergency personnel and volunteers. The first-aid tents in the finish area which normally provide support to injured and exhausted runners were quickly conscripted to care for those most affected by the blasts. Runners and spectators with medical training joined in the emergency effort, undoubtedly saving lives in the process.

As the situation stabilized, law enforcement officials began the painstaking task of piecing together evidence, and soon a picture began to emerge about what had taken place. Importantly, the authorities in charge provided regular press briefings and updates on the evolving investigation. Though not flawless, the performance of many of the key spokespersons including Boston Police Commissioner, Ed Davis; Boston Mayor, Tom Menino; Governor, Deval Patrick; FBI Special Agent, Rick Deslauriers; and, President Barack Obama gave the impression of a well-rehearsed, coordinated response, with each organization and level of government playing its respective role.

Perhaps tellingly, no single heroic figure has emerged from the crisis. With egos refreshingly set aside for the greater good, the hero label appears destined to be reserved for the many unselfish individuals who spontaneously offered comfort and support to others with little regard for their own safety. Fittingly, the term “hero” also applies to the people of Boston themselves who reacted with generosity and compassion towards their many shocked visitors and guests. Those of us who were there that day will remember with fondness the Bostonians who offered blankets to the many bewildered, shivering runners stopped-short on the course, their dream of finishing the Boston Marathon suddenly put on hold just shy of the finish line, or other Bostonians personally apologizing for the tragic events while beseeching runners to return next year.

What then are the management lessons that can be drawn from such an experience? First, given that all such tragic events cannot be prevented, the old scouting adage “be prepared” is an appropriate one. No doubt the result of careful emergency planning, involving many hours of rehearsals and simulations by highly committed professionals, that preparation was on full display in the coordinated efforts of Boston’s responders. Second, act quickly and decisively in time of crisis. Boston authorities moved rapidly to clear and cordon off the area around the blast and to mitigate the potential risk of further harm. Through their actions, authorities demonstrated that care for the injured and public safety were top priorities. Thirdly, show concern for others. Crisis events are traumatic on many levels and emotions are running high. Despite a heavy police presence in the downtown core (including the National Guard), at no time did that presence feel heavy-handed or oppressive. Striking an appropriate balance, law enforcement took reasonable precautions without being overly restrictive.

Overall, how well managed was the response? One recent poll reported that 91 percent of voters approved of law enforcement’s handling of the bombings while 71 percent approved of the Obama administration’s performance. Pretty good numbers indeed.

As new questions arise surrounding how the alleged perpetrators managed to slip through the FBI’s radar, the events in Boston also give rise to questions about how well prepared our Canadian authorities are to manage such a crisis. Clearly, there are important lessons to be learned for all those involved in emergency planning and crisis management. As for those of us who were there that day, I have yet to meet anyone who has not vowed to return next year to help make the 2014 Boston Marathon the best one ever. Sadly, no amount of planning can guarantee prevention of such horrible events; however, as the Boston crisis responders so aptly demonstrated, through careful preparation and good management practice, we can control the quality of our response to them.


This article appeared in the online edition of Canadian Government Executive on May 7, 2013.