How is a leader supposed to act during a national bushfire crisis?

Our top leaders have been widely and fervidly criticised for “a lack of leadership” during our bushfire crisis. That term has been broadly touted to cover all manner of sins.

Why have people been so energised to condemn and insult our leaders on perceptions of poor leadership? Intuitively, we judge people not on how they handle the good times but how they respond when times are tough.


So today, I’m taking a critical look at leadership in tragic times through a lens of trust, compassion and hope. This article is not about Hawaiian holidays nor backyard cricket. It’s about understanding what people are looking for in their leaders during a crisis.


I was working in New Jersey in September 2001 when I watched the horror of the Twin Towers collapse in New York City. What emerged from a disaster was a lesson in leadership from Rudy Giuliani that has stayed with me ever since. Similarly, Jacinda Ardern has been praised for her leadership in the aftermath of the recent Christchurch shooting tragedy. What can we learn from both?


HOW CAN I TRUST MY LEADER?


Back home, I believe the first problem was our leader thought about the bushfire situation as a politician, not as our Prime Minister. Remember how Jacinda Ardern saw the Christchurch tragedy as a national problem and not a political one? There were no sides. It was about a broader humanity. Playing politics is about self-interest and not about the people that matter.


Secondly, the Fire Chiefs, the farmers and the families all knew a long time ago, that with tinder-dry forests and fields, this was possible. Repeated warnings went unheeded. I call this incongruence a reality gap. The more management levels there are from the Board Chair to front line teams, the greater the gap between perception and reality. What did the “Canberra bubble” choose to do or not to do based on what they knew to be true? You can now see the anger, resentment and frustration coming out from those who have lost the most.

When the world sees something that our leaders can’t, how can you put faith or trust in someone who doesn’t really get it? Our recent governments have long been internationally criticised for being “regressive” and “not credible” in regard to climate change policy.


Once the long-awaited but welcome announcement of emergency ADF personnel deployment was made, it was followed up with a social media video promoting government action. More political game playing.


HOW COMPASSIONATE IS MY LEADER?


In NYC, Rudy Giuliani was highly visible during the crisis by reflecting the emotions of the moment: shock, sadness and anger. There weren’t any awkward hugs, forced handshakes nor any walk-offs. His words and actions came across as natural and authentic, and people felt he was genuinely by their side. This was a leader who demonstrated the compassion people were desperately seeking. Jacinda Ardern led a multiparty delegation to Christchurch, wearing a black headscarf whilst mourning the tragic loss with relatives and friends of the victims. Again, putting herself in another person’s shoes. Walking the talk.


What I see is politicians who find it hard to be themselves when it matters most. To show strength in leadership doesn't necessarily mean hiding their own vulnerability. Nor should it be beholden to hidden vested interests or follow a party line. When this happens, it often results in uncompassionate behaviour, unconvincing conviction and insensitive responses.


WHERE IS THE HOPE FOR A BETTER WORLD?


Hope abounds from the global community. Thousands of people worldwide have generously supported our volunteer fire-fighters and victims.


The Australian government though has been criticised for a delayed response despite promising $2B of Federal funding, with more money if it’s needed and establishing new Federal and State-based agencies (e.g. Bushfire Recovery Victoria).


Our local and world leaders’ resolute views on climate policy seem to be at odds with what many people believe, thus giving us little hope as to whether anything will change in this area. There is also uncertainty about how future national disasters and responses should be nationally coordinated. There may be a Royal Commission to answer some of these questions, but that’s of little comfort for people currently navigating this disaster.


In his public statements, Giuliani said "Tomorrow New York is going to be here...and we're going to rebuild, and we're going to be stronger than we were before...". Meanwhile Jacinda Ardern immediately pursued changing New Zealand's gun laws by announcing plans to make “our community safer".


SO HOW IS A LEADER SUPPOSED TO ACT?


As a leader, your goal is to bring people with you no matter whether it’s a crisis, a re-organisation or a new strategic direction. It doesn’t really matter what the shift is that you are trying to make. Leaders enable things to shift. If you can’t get people to follow you, by definition, you are not leading anyone. You may as well be leading a stone.


You can only lead people who trust you, where you show genuine compassion and give hope for a better future.


Take personal responsibility and acknowledge your reality. These build trust. Lead by being trustworthy. Trust is earned not bought. If a leader is neither receptive to bad news nor asking enough of the right questions, any complex situation is likely to be mishandled. Often, leaders rush to act for action’s sake. Similarly, withholding information to maintain an advantage erodes any earned trust.


So, how well do your people trust you to make good decisions?


Compassion is about genuinely caring for others. Often, self-interest gets in the way. How often has a leader been self-obsessed with achieving a goal that is not in the company's best interests? When things go wrong, they are not completely broken, but some leaders behave as if they are. Honouring the past is the way to move a step closer to an alternate future.


If a leader is not creating hope and giving a voice to a way forward, it is highly likely no-one else will be. You must genuinely believe there is a better world out there, or else it’s a false hope and therefore you have a trust issue.


WHERE TO FROM HERE?


Our leaders have shown us examples of what good and poor leadership looks like. I believe some of the criticism has been fair. And those involved have copped their fair whack.


There will be numerous learnings to be had down the track. We’ve seen how Rudy Giuliani and Jacinda Ardern handled their respective national crises.


A leader’s time to shine is when the going gets tough. Start with trust, compassion and hope as foundations to build your team's capability to overcome just about any challenge.


And remember, no-one ever won a war on their own.


To support our bushfires, this website has a comprehensive list of how you can help, no matter where in the world you are. Thank you.

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