Shane Fitzsimmons became a household name during the 2019-20 Australian bushfire crisis. While no one wants a repeat of the conditions which led to his prominence on our news feeds, the resilience, authenticity and empathy with which he managed that disaster left an indelible impression on the public. As a leader, he set a high bar, displaying a mix of professionalism and compassion that few Australians will forget.
The former Commissioner of the NSW Rural Fire Service is now the Head of Resilience NSW and those same qualities continue to play a critical role in the way he leads.
Here, the 2021 NSW Australian of the Year, shares how the sense of purpose he discovered as a teenage fire brigade volunteer, still drives him.
Developing leadership skills and finding a sense of purpose
I became a volunteer firefighter at the local fire brigade when I was fifteen years old. I hadn’t been the best student in the world and I was a pretty troublesome teen, but I loved the sense of belonging and team work I got from volunteering. The comradery made it a lot of fun but most importantly, it gave me a sense of purpose to be contributing something to the community, to be making a difference.
I got to work with such a diverse bunch of people – students, doctors, lawyers, tradies, garbos. It brought us together. There’s something very special and bonding about that experience. Some of my oldest friends are ones I made in the brigade.
At nineteen years old I became the youngest-ever member elected captain of my brigade. I’ve often wondered, why me? I think it’s partly because I’ve always been an open book – what you see is what you get. I’m not afraid to ask questions and I learned quickly that I don’t have all the answers.
There’s no better place to develop life skills and leadership skills than in a volunteer organisation. Negotiation, compromise, team work, initiative, adaptability – you learn it all. And if your team doesn’t feel valued, they’ll tell you and go somewhere else.
Has there ever been a time when we’ve used the word resilience more? The events of these past 18-months have certainly demanded it. So what does it mean?
When I’ve spoken to people living through disaster about what resilience means to them, they say it’s about building on those lived experiences so we can be ready for the next challenge, the next disruption. Yes, it’s about enduring a particular event but it’s also about how we come out the other side better than we went in. It’s like the analogy I read about, white water kayaking – there’s all the turbulence of the rapids and rocks but on the other side is clear, smooth water.
During the COVID-19 pandemic we’ve all had to think about our level of vulnerability – both professionally and as individuals – and draw on our reserves of resilience. The more we can do to understand and appreciate the lived experience and the emotional toll of the pandemic, the more open we can be with our families and loved ones and with our communities and colleagues, the more we will realise we are not alone. We have a collective pool of resilience to draw on. We are sharing so much and together we can ride out the rapids, find the smooth water and be prepared for the next section of white water.
Leading with empathy
Sometimes, though, that clear water feels a long time coming. For many, the past 18-months have been devastating due to fire, flood or pandemic. There were certainly days during the bushfire catastrophe that I felt psychologically and emotionally broken. We lost 26 lives, seven of whom were firefighters.
It was one of the most difficult times of my career. It’s still hard to talk about. But I feel it’s critical for leaders to be present when things are unstable, uncertain and tragic. Compassion and presence are at the heart of my leadership ideology.
And if I ever needed inspiration to be present over those hard months, all I had to do was look at the thousands of people who were out on the frontline day after day fighting those fires. Whenever I spoke to the media, I remembered the two most important audiences: the first were those remarkable women and men in the firefighting and emergency response effort and their loved ones – I always wanted to be sure to acknowledge and thank them and to validate their efforts and sacrifice. The second was everyone affected by the disaster. I wanted to show them I understood their fear and anxieties, to acknowledge their incredible losses, and to give them as much confidence and clarity as possible about what we were doing and not doing.
Being present at the most terrible times with crews and families and being humbled by the way they shared their grief was extremely important. That was a sacred and special time and it will sit with me forever.
We don’t talk as leaders enough about the words ‘care’ or ‘compassion’. Care is fundamental and it translates to respect. And it’s okay for a leader to be vulnerable and to be impacted by what’s happening. Indeed, I believe vulnerability is key to good leadership. But we do need to acknowledge that events like these have an emotional toll. We need to be open about that, reach out to each other and normalise the conversation around those feelings.
Why authentic leadership trumps everything else
Leadership is about people. Yes, as leaders you need to have trust and confidence in the framework and structures and systems you’ve built over the years, but most of all you need to have trust and confidence in the people you need to pull together so they can deliver their very best.
For me, that demands total authenticity. The gravity of what the firefighters and the public were facing, the risk and exposure for everyone involved, called for my absolutely authentic and open self.
The more you can connect with the people who have been impacted and with the reality of the situation, the better chance you have of bringing people along with you.
Cutting through the fog
During the fires, people were having to make extremely time-critical, life and death decisions in what we call “the fog of war”. In those conditions you don’t have time to procrastinate, you just expect your designated people to make decisions, leveraging the very best of the diverse opinions around them. If those decisions ever went wrong, the first thing I did was support the people on my team who made them. They were under extreme pressure in a volatile situation and I had their back 100%.
The best a leader can do is make a decision with what you know at the time and be willing to change direction as new information becomes available or if the strategy isn’t working. The team’s culture is a critical part of the civility, professionalism and respect involved in that tough decision-making. The more you prepare and invest in a culture before a crisis occurs, the better chance you have of getting through a crisis together.
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