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The Leadership Crucible

In recent months, during the devastating fires in Australia, there were plenty of positive examples of leadership, demonstrated by emergency service workers and volunteer organisations. Thousands of Australians gave time and money to support local communities affected by fire.

One example of leadership wasn’t so positive. The example is that shown by the Australian Prime Minister. In fact, the Prime Minister was widely panned for being slow to respond and lacking empathy when he did.

In this article, our CEO, Gerard Barwell examines the subject of leadership through this recent lens.

I think most people would reflect on Scott Morrison’s holiday and going on leave as the start of the poor leadership during the recent bushfire crisis.

The biggest problem was not that Scott Morrison went on holidays. It was his reaction during these holidays and after that in terms of the leadership properties that he displayed during that time.

I think if you asked any Australian, they’d say everyone needs an opportunity to go on holidays and take time off with your kids at Christmas time. No problem at all.

But the difference with Prime Minister Morrison was that we did not feel that he recognised that he was the leader of our country and that this was his role. Nor did he demonstrate an understanding the extent of the crises that his people were facing.

A leader is different to everyone else. With our leader we want them to behave differently and we do expect something extra out of them compared with other people. What he was missing was a demonstration that things were being taken care of and under control and that he still cared for his people while he was away. 

Even while he was in Hawaii, he could have explained that he was co-ordinating regularly with key people, and that he had appointed people to be on the ground and everything would be done to get the fires under control.

He could have provided some direction on the likely path ahead and what was organised for when he returned.

He could also have reflected and acknowledged what people were feeling at that point in time.

When we looked for our leader, we couldn’t see that he cared about us. Leaders -need to demonstrate that they care through their actions. You can’t fake caring either. People have a good sense of truth in the matter of feelings.

To be a great leader, if you have done the above right, what you then do is show that you understand and reflect that you know what people in your team are experiencing.In Scott Morrison’s case – the whole of Australia were in his team during this horrific time of need.

He also needed to address the different parties and stakeholders that were in his team.

The head of the RFS – he was an important person on Scott Morrison’s team.

Where and when was he supported? For Morrison,  ere wasn’t just a need to support  the people far below him. He needed to support his management team by stepping in and saying, “Sean needs our help” or “calling him and asking Sean if he is okay and what support he needs to be able to complete his job well.

Where was the backup for the Premiers and the other members of Morrisons team? Yes, they are not Federal politicians however they were key leaders within the team that needed to solve the bushfire crisis in Australia. You don’t need to be the supervisor of someone to provide them with support.

Then you’ve got everyone in Sydney and Melbourne who was suffering from the smoke. He should have been reflecting back and saying, “I can see and I understand what you’re going through”.

When he did come back to Australia; he came back reluctantly and that showed his lack of empathy with his people as well. He said something like: “I can’t hold a hose or put out the fire but if you want my moral support…”

When you don’t show empathy with your team, you isolate yourself as being different to them and they automatically creates a division between you.

People don’t want their leader to be giving up, or to be saying that there’s no more solutions available. What we want from our leaders are new ideas that are inventive and to see them actively engaged in working through the options. Great Leaders will create new ideas and they will think outside the box and we will have trust and comfort that together, with them, we will be okay.

Instead of focusing on what he could not do, Morrison could have focused on what he could deliver. He could have said: “What I’m best at is gathering the troops and I’ll have access to funds if we need them”

To summarise, if we look at leadership during difficult times, we want to see:

  • A level of care demonstrating their understanding and empathy for those involved in their team.
  • Reflecting back and confirming that they agree with people’s feelings and that their feelings are validated, and that their life is difficult during this moment.
  • And then an action plan that has been completed plus what is in the works and what is to come so that they can have hope of success in the future.

Winston Churchill didn’t fire a gun. He didn’t get on the front line. He, didn’t take a holiday, he was in England when he was needed. He wasn’t on the front line in Germany, but the troops still loved and acknowledged him as their leader because he was passionately involved with his team.

He was constantly thinking of new strategies, new ways, and new methods to succeed. He raised the bar as well. He delivered an ambitious plan. Instead of only protecting England,  he decided the goal was to get rid of Germany and conquer it for the whole of Europe.

A big ambitious plan that he and his team delivered.

That is Great Leadership.

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