It can't be a coincidence

16 April 2013

It can't be a coincidence, not after I've seen it happen so many times. It's a moment that reveals some extraordinary insights about leadership.

For many years now I've been facilitating community meetings for people who are facing or have just experienced some of the toughest events or decisions of their lives. These meetings have been designed so participants can recall key events, draw new information from  a group with different perspectives and offer insights, suggestions to help shape the future.

I've facilitated these sessions in communities across several states during times of stress brought about by unexpected and unwelcome changes to the way people live and work because industry or business restructures, environmental or planning issues or natural disasters including during the Bushfires Royal Commission, the Flood Inquiry and recently in Harrietville for local people affected by last Summer's fires.

These meetings always reveal lots of anger, denial and blame. This kind of community stress is usually being experienced for the first time. People tell stories filled with loss and sadness. The most pain comes from losing lives and the effect of trauma on children - "choosing which pets to take or leave behind". And then there's lost property, lost jobs, bankruptcy, breakdown...

In most meetings there's a strong desire to blame others -  them...they broke promises, turned up late, were in the wrong place, could've warned us earlier, didn't know the local area, were neglectful, didn't understand or care enough, made stupid decisions... For a while it sounds like they are responsible for taking away people's carefree days.

And then more often than not, something remarkable happens. It takes one person to throw the invisible switch.

They shift attention away from the anger and blame in the room when they start talking about us and we instead of they or them, suggesting that we shouldn't wait for them but that we can and should act. Now.

The language in the room starts to consider accepting more responsibility, from 'why didn't they do more?' to 'we knew this was possible, why didn't we organize ourselves better?' and ' we need to start planning for the next time this happens right now!'

Who are these few people who can switch the tone and sentiment in a community meeting?

I've worked out a few things about what they seem to know and do during those usually, unguarded moments.

These speakers invariably don't wear uniforms designating position or power. They draw on the authority of being a well known, trusted local. They are masters of communication talking up to people by telling simple stories of how they see things, what they think should happen next and suggesting a plan that appears doable to stressed people.

They call on others to join them. "We have to change things for ourselves, that other lot will leave here soon but we'll still be left with us...and we have to make it work".

I haven't heard them mention politics or ideology but they do speak from the heart while not being overwhelmed by emotion. They quickly get attention, trust and support because they seem to offer comfort along with practical ideas and confidence and hope. Their suggestions simply make good common sense.

Watching these key people trigger a turnaround during a meeting keeps reminding me that some extraordinary types of leadership are intuitive and don't come about through formal training, uniforms, powerful jobs, highly-polished presentation skills or lofty rhetoric.  It can come from thoughtful, credible local community leaders with solid values, a sense of serving others, no interest in power and who can use the right words at the right time.    

These are the key people we should call on to further develop leadership in our regions, communities and neighbourhoods. They can help maintain community resilience and show others how to take on responsibility for creating a more positive future.

Finding them at these difficult moments isn't hard.

You need to be alert to spot them because they usually don't stand out from a crowd - except at those moments when they start to speak. Their language is the first clue. Its about us not all about them.

I'd be really interested to hear if you've had a similar 'leadership spotting' experience. You'll probably agree that this type of leadership isn't a coincidence and that we should be working more with those important people to help and support others during times of stress.

Chris Kotur, Leader In Residence