Authors / Harvard Extension School / Harvard Faculty / Harvard Kennedy School / Harvard news / Harvard News Release / Jennifer Doody

What Zombies Can Teach Us About Leadership and Ethics

Q&A with Christopher Robichaud, Lecturer in Ethics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School

Robichaud, who teaches the intensive three-day course Emergency Ethics: Confronting a Global Crisis over Halloween weekend, shares what can be learned from a zombie pandemic simulation.

When Robichaud wants to invite students to consider leadership challenges and ethical dilemmas that arise in emergency situations, he turns to zombies.

As a lecturer on philosophy and ethics at both Harvard Extension School and the Kennedy School, he finds that a fictional pandemic scenario challenges students to face moral questions without any precedent. It’s an exercise that leads to a new understanding of leadership, decision making, and values.

Dedicated to bringing his philosophical ideas to a wider audience, Robichaud has had his work published in several pop culture and philosophy volumes, including The Walking Dead and Philosophy: Shotgun. Machete. Reason


We choose zombies not just because it’s fun, but because it places everyone at the table in a situation where they’re going to have to learn together how to tackle an adaptive problem, because no one will come into the situation as an expert.

For a lot of real-world emergency scenarios, standard operating procedures already exist. If a hurricane hits, your country should know what to do and how to respond; and if it fails to respond adequately, the failure isn’t one of leadership but of public management.

But if a hurricane hits and a nuclear facility meltdown happens at the same time, there is usually no standard operating procedure for that. There is no manual. That’s a time when we need leadership. So in this scenario, where no one can have any expertise, students have to work and learn together in leading their country through this problem’s evolving challenges.

And doing that is not easy. To be perfectly blunt, a lot of students experience varying degrees of failure in this exercise. But that’s okay, because that’s where the real learning begins. It provides a great opportunity to talk about ethics and adaptive leadership.

If you’re a country that privileges freedom of speech but shuts down the press an hour into the simulation to contain the situation … well let’s explore why you made that decision. Or, say you decide to abandon a city and leave the citizens there who weren’t infected to the zombies: what leads to that decision?

We usually see students get to a place of panic and frustration. This is a situation where they’re not playing a role, like the vice president: they’re playing themselves in a high-ranking position, making leadership decisions for their country. Thus, they have to confront why they make the decisions they make in this extreme situation, when there’s a lot of pressure and the stakes are incredibly high.


One of the ethical questions that arise in emergency situations is whether ethical considerations should be in play at all. There’s literature out there that really arose out of the just war theory, which asks, “If your nation-state faces an existential crisis, should there be any ethical limitations on defending yourself?”

Ordinary emergencies don’t necessarily rise to that level, but in such intense situations we tend to favor expediency over ethics. Only in retrospect do we ask, “Was that a morally defensible thing to do?” The question is, “How do we train people so that, in the moment of an emergency, they can reflect in the midst of action, exercising agency over decisions that they won’t second-guess later, from a moral standpoint?”

An example can be found in the article “Deadly Choices at Memorial Hospital,” in which Sheri Fink reports on a New Orleans hospital and the actions of its staff during Hurricane Katrina. At some point in that situation, some patients were euthanized without consent. The staff also had to decide how to prioritize care, and they decided to use Do Not Resuscitate orders to to make such decisions. But a DNR has nothing to do with prioritization of care: it has to do with not bringing back someone who is clinically dead. In retrospect, that decision is very questionable, but in the moment, of course, you’re desperate for expediency.

So I’m interested in showing how people with the best of intentions and the highest moral standards may often, in extreme situations where they’re feeling incredible pressure, act first and rationalize later. And that’s exactly what you don’t want when it comes to ethics.


The course attempts to bring the literature on adaptive leadership and negotiations into conversations about emergency ethics, and we’ve designed a simulation that brings to the surface tensions regarding negotiations and ethics.

I’ve always found adaptive leadership and negotiations are enriched by a conversation about ethics. On the one hand, it’s about handling emergencies, but it’s also about handling crisis. Emergencies are handled over a short amount of time, whereas a crisis is over the long term. We need to explain both to find out why it’s so hard to get on the same page, and how we move forward.


Adaptive leadership is a kind of leadership training that I’m exporting from the Kennedy School to the Extension School, and it views leadership through a much different lens. Traditionally we view a leader as a person with a lot of power and followers. The leader is adept at getting people to do what he or she wants them to do.

Adaptive leadership differentiates between leadership and authority. It holds that leadership fundamentally involves building a capacity within the group by way of mobilizing them for collective action on adaptive problems, by which we mean problems that don’t have a technical solution. They require public learning, sort of learning in action, lots of revision, and so forth.

In this model, one of the take-home messages is that failure is far more likely than success. Most attempts at leadership fail. My colleague, Ron Heifetz, pioneered this, and one of the things that he says in his classes is that leaders have to develop the capacity for despair.

By presenting a zombie pandemic, I’m presenting them with an adaptive situation. Teams work in groups of five or six people, and they build a country from the ground up: is it a democracy or theocracy? What does it import or export? Once they have created their country, that’s when I give them a zombie pandemic that quickly escalates.


We ran it last year, and the evaluations were spectacular. I built it for the Kennedy School years ago, and we’ve adapted the model for a variety of different contexts.

The Extension School version is the only one that transpires over three days rather than an afternoon or a day, so it’s a real immersive experience. And students, I think, get a tremendous amount of learning out of it: how to negotiate values, work in groups, and so on.

Some of the lessons I’m trying to teach students are ones that are best taught in this kind of scenario, taking the time to really delve into the material.


I spent a lifetime playing games, ranging from Dungeons and Dragons to all sorts of video games and board games, and I thought it would be interesting to design engaging simulations that draw on various tabletop game mechanics.

Elaine Kamark, lecturer in public policy at Harvard Kennedy School, was creating a new executive education program at the Kennedy School called Emerging Leaders, and she asked me to design a leadership simulation for the program. To her credit, when I suggested the zombie pandemic, she immediately said, “Yes.”


Zombies in general have become quite a thing, and not just on TV or in the movies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention uses zombies to teach people about how pandemics spread. The Pentagon has a zombie apocalypse response in place. For my part, my simulation has shown up in a variety of different learning scenarios at Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Extension School.

It’s now sort of the norm to think, “How would I manage something crazy and off the wall that has no manual?” I think it shows that people can have a lot of fun with an exercise and learn a lot at the same time.

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