Tough times can teach great leadership

27 June 2012 By Chris Kotur

Chris Kotur
Chris Kotur

Chris Kotur has facilitated numerous community consultations including for the Bushfires Royal Commission and the Flood Review. She is Leader-in-Residence at Leadership Victoria.

It started out much the same each time. Each event brought sudden changes no one expected or wanted. Afterwards nothing would ever be quite the same.

Bush fires, floods and economic restructuring have brought big changes to parts of Victoria. Fire and flood-affected communities are rebuilding. Some regions are trying to adapt as economic changes affect employers who restructure or leave town. Each time people's lives are affected in similar ways and each time local, community-based leadership holds many answers to keeping communities on the path to recovery.

Reflecting on these traumatic events over recent years it's clear that tough times also reveal the positive impact of remarkable leadership skills and capabilities. These lessons could well be lost unless we make much more out of what local community leadership has taught us during some of the toughest times Victorians have ever faced.

Three years after Black Saturday many people continue to face serious difficulties. The process is well known. Disasters change people's lives. There's often another wave of trauma later on. Recent revelations of suicides, increased domestic violence, family breakdown and alcohol and drug abuse in Kinglake are typical in communities left fragile and vulnerable after large scale disasters. Smaller scale, local tragedies can continue to affect entire communities too. There's still hurt in Kerang when they talk about the train crash that killed 11 people in June 2007.

On the positive side local leadership can help people stay resilient and speed up healing. While support from government, outside experts and volunteers is critical, many people know they must eventually get by on their own.

Working with organisations on local issues around the country gives me lots of opportunities to meet people who, despite the most difficult circumstances, demonstrate remarkably effective leadership skills. Each time I facilitate community consultations for local government or during the 2009 Bushfires Royal Commission or the recent Flood Review, local leaders keep me talking well after the official events are over. It's often during those conversations that a special kind of community leadership becomes apparent.

What sets these community leaders apart?

They're the people who are quick to start talking about positive ideas for the future. They get attention, trust and support from a wide range of people and their optimism is infectious.

The stories start out in much the same way: "For three generations we've worked this land and now we've lost everything... what's this mean for our kids?!"; "We'd seen floods before, but never heard of an inland sea, a tsunami, coming toward us!"; "After years of drought we forgot about floods"; "The fires took everything... family, friends, our homes, our work... we're shattered... we were just so unprepared."

After the bush fires and floods they described how some people quickly started leading by using their local authority: "we didn't listen to outsiders, the blow-ins from the city telling us what we should do... we listened to people we knew."

Despite sharing similar experiences, despite the same fears and dread, these people acted. Put simply, they led.

They took responsibility - "no one can tell us what our future should be... we have to work it out ourselves" - and knowingly sidestepped bureaucracy when their local knowledge and common sense told them that had to act more quickly than outside authorities. They were on the spot and had to solve problems fast.

They hatched plans quickly and communicated clearly: "I said we have to fix this now so here's what has to happen... here's what we'll need, here's who we'll need to help, and now let's get on with it."

Communities hit by dramatic or unwelcome change know that media attention and outside help can't last and that their resilience will be tested over and over again, often for years to come: "I'm even more worried about what happens when all the attention stops... we won't be on the news any more... you'll be gone and we'll still be here..."

However, these local leaders stayed positive during the tough times and spread confidence and hope. They had an enormously positive influence on their community's staying power.

And so what has the broader Australian community learned from these examples of leadership that will stay with us the next time we need it? Probably very little, certainly not enough. We're not very good at keeping important lessons alive over time. We're better at reinventing wheels. We soon forget, move on, lose the knowledge.

Such an approach is tremendously haphazard, wasteful and expensive: and it's unnecessary. It doesn't need to be like that. We can do much more with local communities to connect people and share their knowledge about the best ways to support each other, to stay resilient and work together.

More support for community leaders willing to design recovery plans across neighbouring communities would be a good start.

Now is the right time to make a lot more out of the important lessons learned from own communities about leadership that can work. It's so important that we capture and spread the knowledge of this kind of community leadership that helps keep people strong during tough times. It has to happen now, before we forget.

It's time to invest time, effort and funds to make the most out of the experiences of people who have unexpectedly learned about leadership - the hard way - on the job during the worst of times and using their one chance to get it right.

We must immediately increase our support for developing community leaders everywhere in Victoria. We MUST be prepared for the next inevitable disaster and it is critical we capture the learning from these recent local crises response – let's not reinvent the wheel. Again.