Crisis Leadership

Wednesday, June 1, 2011 - 08:23

Rolling natural disasters have placed Australian leadership under immense pressure and scrutiny. What went well, and what leadership lessons can be learned? By Sarah Marinos

On 7 February 2009, bushfires swept through Victoria claiming the lives of 173 people. Countless homes were destroyed and the Victorian landscape was changed forever.

The following year those fires claimed the career and reputation of Christine Nixon, the former Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police and the Coordinator of the State Emergency Response Plan for the fires.

On the evening of the fires, rather than leading efforts to combat the fires, Nixon left the Emergency Coordination Centre to go to dinner with friends. Her actions - or rather her inactions - lead to her demise. The Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission criticised her leadership as 'hands-off' and 'inadequate'.

"It is not satisfactory that at this time - when she was aware of the potential for disaster and, in fact, while the magnitude of the disaster was becoming apparent with confirmation of fatalities - Ms Nixon was absent... something more was required," said the Royal Commission.

Fast-forward to Queensland. In early 2011, with the flooding in the south-east and Cyclone Yasi tearing through North Queensland, the Premier, Anna Bligh, saw her popularity rise due to what was uniformly described by public commentators as strong and effective leadership.

"You can't lead from the rear in a disaster and Bligh demonstrated that," says Andrew Balmaks of the Noetic Group in Canberra, a strategic management consultancy that works with a range of government departments.

"She was out there among the people, she had empathy and she built confidence, and once you get the confidence of people in a crisis then they say, 'OK, these decisions are the right ones'," he says.

"Bligh's communication with Queenslanders, and with Australians broadly, gave people confidence that everything possible was being done and that this crisis was her No.1 focus."

Demonstrating humanity

Zoe Hibbert, Managing Director at Burson-Marsteller in Sydney, agrees. Burson-Marsteller is an international public relations and communications business that has worked on crises such as the Panadol extortion in 2000 and the Esso Longford gas explosion in Victoria in 1998.

"Bligh was always available and she demonstrated humanity," says Hibbert.

"You need to treat people with respect, keep them up to date, communicate with them and let them know that everything isn't perfect but that you are doing the best you can. Reasonable and respectful communication is critical. I think Bligh did that.

"On the other hand, I don't think the Prime Minister or Tony Abbott were perceived as effective during Cyclone Yasi and the floods in Queensland. Julia Gillard wasn't engaging and Abbott seemed disconnected. They both looked like they were there for the photo opportunity and not to really do anything about the situation."

Outside of Queensland, Australia has suffered a series of natural disasters in quick succession. Victoria, South Australia, New South Wales and Tasmania experienced floods, while Western Australia also suffered flooding and then bushfires. More recently, many Australians were also shocked by the earthquakes that devastated New Zealand and, via the resultant tsunami, Japan.

Effective leadership

Each of these events shone the spotlight on the importance of strong and effective leadership, says Peter Murphy, CEO of the Noetic Group.

"Natural disasters are an incredible test for leaders because they happen with little or no warning and leaders have to respond to circumstances where there is a great deal of uncertainty. And increasingly, while the public accepts these kinds of things happen, they don't accept a poor response from leaders," says Murphy.

He nominates a number of leadership skills displayed in the course of disaster management that are transportable to industries and services.

"Good leadership starts before a crisis. You can't do perfect preparation because every event has its special circumstances and unfolds in different ways, but a leader makes sure their teams are as well prepared as possible," says Murphy.

"This involves working out likely possibilities and developing plans that are not prescriptive but allow you to respond to what unfolds.

"In a natural disaster situation no one agency or service can undertake the response, so building partnerships and relationships that will be put under significant strain during an emergency becomes very important, too. The more people work and prepare together and get to know each other, the more effective the response will be."

The ability to take limited available information and make effective decisions is important, as is the ability to delegate to people in the field. "A leader can't micromanage during these kinds of events," says Murphy. "And leaders need to look after themselves. They can't work themselves into the ground or their decision-making decays."

Coordination and briefings

When Victoria's City of Casey suffered severe flooding in early 2011, the Director Emergency Management, Greg Wood, and a team of employees swiftly provided emergency relief to affected communities. A Municipal Emergency Coordination Centre was opened and staffed by Victoria Police, State Emergency Service, Country Fire Association and Department of Human Services to deal with calls for help.

Council employees from various departments, including Roads and Construction, Drainage, IT, Community Care and Youth and Family Services, also worked together to coordinate responses and an emergency centre was established to shelter people displaced by the severe flooding.

Throughout the relief operations, Wood regularly briefed the community and media on what was being done to mitigate the flooding crisis. "The City of Casey is coordinating an integrated and comprehensive emergency recovery response, which involves working closely with relevant state and commonwealth authorities and departments, as well as local agencies, to deal with the myriad issues our residents and businesses are facing," Wood stated at the time.

Nursing home residents were swiftly moved to safer premises, businesses were offered specialist support to help them reopen quickly, and even cats and dogs at a private boarding kennel were safely relocated.

Once the floodwaters receded, the City of Casey's leadership emerged with its reputation intact due to the council's decisive actions and transparent communication strategy.

Building on lessons learned through these natural disasters, in February 2011 the Council of Australian Governments' adopted a National Disaster Resilience Strategy to improve understanding of the risks of natural disasters, to educate people about those risks, and to 'improve methods of communicating urgent messages to communities so they can make informed decisions about their options when faced with natural disasters'.

The strategy also looks at ways of reducing the impact of natural disasters in the medium to long term via improved urban and regional planning.

Valuable learning opportunity

Andrew Balmaks believes Australia's emergence from recent natural disasters is a valuable learning opportunity for leadership.

"We are continually learning from these disasters and we still have a way to go, but some aspects of good leadership are clear. Communication is important. If you are making decisions you need to communicate them," he says.

"To understand the factors that affect your business, leaders need to be able to ask the right questions of the right people. Then they can take advantage to position their business for better outcomes.

"From a leadership perspective it's also important to understand the culture of an organisation, because leaders can't make changes without embracing the people in their organisation to produce the outcomes they are seeking. And in times of crisis, leaders need to be part of the solution; they need to roll up their sleeves and get to the nub of the problem quickly."

Zoe Hibbert says that potential leaders should view a crisis as an opportunity to make positive changes and to prepare better for the next one.

"A crisis may not feel like an opportunity when you are in the middle of it, but it can be an opportunity to change the way you do business and to enhance reputation," she says.

"If you are responsive, show leadership and communicate well, and the outcome demonstrates those attributes, then people may think more highly of your organisation than they did before and you may come out in better shape."