Dr Nick Jans OAM is a principal of Sigma Consultancy. A graduate of the Royal Military College, Duntroon, he is currently serving with the rank of brigadier. Nick is on the editorial board of the journal Armed Forces & Society and holds visiting fellowships at the Australian Defence College’s Centre for Defence Leadership and Ethics and the School of Business, UNSW@ADFA, Canberra. He is the lead author of The chiefs—a study of strategic leadership (2013).
Good leadership often seems like magic; the most inspiring leader–follower relationships involve an almost indefinable spark between the leader and the led. But while it may be almost indefinable—like great art or falling in love—we know it when we feel it and we can be moved by it without knowing exactly why.
Nick Jans’ essay concerns leadership in a time of disaster. Following the Black Saturday firestorm of 7 February 2009, the Marysville Triangle district of Victoria faced a bleak future. In the following weeks and months Nick worked alongside three outstanding individuals who exemplified that ‘magic spark’. These three people inspired a group of ordinary citizens to work to rebuild a stunned, fractured and dispersed community—a goal they achieved with remarkable success.
Leadership is one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth.
—James McGregor Burns
My wife and I live in Marysville, in a beautiful mountain valley in the Victorian Central Highlands. However, the things that make it an icon of the Victorian tourist scene also make it a bushfire risk. In the period leading up to 9 February 2009, we had worked hard to minimise the risk for our household by siting our home in a defensible place and building it of fireproof materials. We had equipped and trained ourselves for bushfire defence. My wife had spent the week before Black Saturday making arrangements for a weekend of extreme fire danger which, after an unprecedented three days of temperatures in the mid 40s (Celsius), was tipped to be potentially horrendous. After spending the previous week on professional duties in Sydney, I returned on the first plane that Saturday morning to help her with the final preparations.
By the evening we found ourselves literally fighting for our lives, in the face of perhaps the most extreme bushfire conditions ever recorded. Our part of the village was the first hit, and we were immediately engulfed in flames. It was like being in a cage that was being lowered into the depths of hell. Through luck and good management our house survived, but the houses on each side burned to the ground in less than 30 minutes. By midnight, the lovely mountain village that had been our home had been devastated, with 34 of its citizens dead and only 32 buildings out of 600-odd still standing.
If any community needed good leadership, it was the Marysville Triangle district immediately after Black Saturday. The survivors were shell-shocked, emotionally gutted. Most had to be relocated, often some distance from where their homes used to be. And as if the experience during the fire itself weren’t bad enough, most of Marysville’s citizens were excluded from the town for another 10 weeks while the coroner and her team sifted through the wreckage for further bodies. Moreover, when people were allowed to return and begin to piece their lives back together, they had to look on as dozens of rubble-filled truckloads rumbled out every day with most of what remained of the village and its houses. Meanwhile, there were already worrying signs of the thickets of red tape that would soon entangle us. Many of Marysville’s citizens wondered whether the town would ever be restored to its former glory, let alone when.
In the aftermath of a disaster, some communities fracture under the strain of fear and anger. But others become more united and cohesive, and emerge from the experience stronger and more supportive than they were before. Marysville was to become an example of the second case.
On Anzac Day 2009, just a few weeks after the fire, the community celebrated its biggest Anzac Day ever. While the major focus was on the celebration of the Anzac spirit as it was revealed on Black Saturday and afterwards by citizens and emergency services, we wanted also to use the occasion to lift the spirits and the optimism of the community. So, in the Anzac Day address that day, I stressed that the community’s very ability to mount such a big event so soon after coming through the fire was a demonstration of its resilience—to the world, and to itself.
And to prove the point, exactly one week later the community engaged in a huge collective brainstorming activity, where we began thinking constructively and creatively about what we wanted from a new township. More than 300 of us gathered together in a huge marquee on the practice fairway of the golf course to spend the day engaged in small group and plenary sessions. This activity was rounded off in July by a smaller, more intensive workshop over a long weekend, when a blueprint for the new Marysville and Triangle area was developed.
By mid June, with the help of philanthropists, notably the Fox and Forrest families, the community had established a temporary village that was housing dozens of displaced residents. The government had played only a minor role in this particular project. It was essentially the work of the community and its leadership group.
By mid May, the golf club had restored its front nine holes to playability, and by November the whole layout was back in business and running its first ever pro-am tournament. And by the end of the year, Marysville again had a viable retail facility, a facility that also served as a social hub.
I had two main roles in all of this. I was one of half a dozen citizens who formed a community leadership group in the weeks immediately following the fires. And, from mid March onwards, I served as president of the Marysville Community Golf and Bowls Club, one of the few viable local businesses still running for most of that year.
And as I ‘did’ leadership and observed examples of leaders and leadership—some great, some not so great—I relearnt a number of fundamental lessons about the practice of leadership in circumstances of uncertainty and volatility.
Imagine yourself there in Marysville, on the Sunday evening of the second weekend after the firestorm. The town has been all but destroyed. A public meeting has been called, at very short notice, but you’re not quite sure what its purpose is. Despite the short notice and the damage to the communication systems in the district, word of mouth has drawn a crowd of more than 300 anxious people. You and the rest of them are packed into the main room of the Marysville golf club, virtually the only public building of any size left in the vicinity. It is very hot. The evidence of bushfire devastation can be observed at all sides through the long windows; the smell of smoke is still thick in the air. People are stressed and worried; you can see tired, strained faces all around you. Virtually all have lost friends and material possessions. Uncertainty is rife. Rumour has it that it might be weeks, maybe months, before the coroner’s investigation will be complete and the survivors allowed back. Attention is at its maximum, with people hanging hope on every word.
The meeting lasted for about three hours. Its effect on community morale was profound and widespread among those who attended. For example, a local resident spoke the following day of how she had come to the meeting in very low spirits but had left it feeling as though she was walking on air.
Much of this morale-lifting effect was due to the words of two men who addressed the meeting that night.
One was a fellow soldier, Major General John Cantwell. In the weeks immediately following Black Saturday, General Cantwell was appointed deputy head of the Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority. He had spent the weekend touring the district, accompanied by Andrew Forrest, the mining magnate and philanthropist, and one of Australia’s richest men. They had arrived in a helicopter (belonging to another billionaire, Lindsay Fox) midmorning on Saturday 21 February, and had conducted a number of debriefing sessions with grassroots representative members of the community—chosen as ‘ordinary citizens’ rather than as local government or police officials—in various parts of the Marysville Triangle area. At the end of that Saturday, impressed by what they had seen and heard, they requested that a public meeting be called in Marysville for the Sunday evening. Now here they were to address it.
John Cantwell was the first speaker. He was the very image of the modern major general: fit, slim, dressed as a simple soldier in baggy camouflage suit and slouch hat. He took off his hat and waved away the proffered microphone, with the jovial remark that he was used to talking to soldiers in a loud voice and that microphones often ‘got in the way’. He began by telling us ‘a bit about myself’. He told of how he had come from ‘humble origins’—had in fact risen from the ranks (unlike me and the vast majority of his contemporaries, who had gone straight to the Royal Military College or the Defence Academy soon after school).
John then related how he too had been in war zones, had been shell-shocked, and, like many men, had initially declined the opportunity for counselling—and how he soon came to realise how dumb he was being. He urged all of us to take advantage of the counselling services which would be provided—’don’t be too proud’. And it was advice that would resonate deeply within the community in the months that followed.
Having won the crowd by his fair dinkum demeanour, John simply and calmly outlined what he saw as the immediate function of the Reconstruction and Recovery Authority: the emergency provision of food, supplies and shelter, and cleaning up of debris. After that he took questions. For more than an hour. The majority of these questions, coming as they did from people still traumatised by the events of the previous fortnight, were on mundane local domestic topics. When can we return to the village? Where and how will we be housed? When will the store and petrol station reopen? When will Black Spur Drive be open? How will the lord mayor’s fund be used? Will part-time residents be treated differently to full-time residents? What say will the community have in what happens? When can we expect our fences to be restored? When can we expect to hear from insurance companies? And so on.
Some of these questions John referred to other people present that evening. Some he asked his staff officer to note, with the promise that he would get back shortly with the answer. But most he dealt with himself. And the way that he did so was masterful. John treated every question and every questioner with equal seriousness, even though some of them were a bit bizarre or obviously based on wild rumour. He projected empathy, composure, confidence and competence. In doing so, he left the audience with the conviction that the right person was in charge; that although the situation was dire there was a plan for dealing with it, and that everybody’s needs would be attended to at the appropriate time.
I was so proud of him and of the Australian military that evening.
The next speaker was Andrew Forrest. He was in the district because of his passion for helping Australian communities, and his intention was to help the relief effort through his charitable foundation, the Australian Children’s Trust. Despite a huge business workload, he and his family had visited the bushfire-affected areas in the preceding days, gaining a very good understanding of what was required, and what was, and was not, being done by the authorities.
Andrew Forrest had a fairly simple message, and he made it with emphasis and clarity. He told us that he had some time previously researched the question of how and why certain communities bounce back from a disaster, such as Hurricane Katrina, while others just fade away. And the answer was fairly simple. Communities that bounced back took responsibility for their own recovery and rebuilding. They didn’t wait for governments or other agencies to help them. They went about helping themselves, but they didn’t hesitate to ask for any help they needed. Forrest’s research showed that these communities recover faster and become stronger and better than they were before the disaster. And they begin by setting themselves what Forrest called ‘big, hairy aggressive goals’. But even if, as often happens, they didn’t quite achieve those goals, they still advanced themselves by much more than they ever thought possible.
‘You in the Marysville Triangle’, Andrew Forrest told us, ‘you must do the same.’
I’ll give you an example of the power of his words. At that time, I was president-elect of the Marysville Community Golf and Bowls Club. The committee had already decided that, since the club was one of the few viable businesses left in the district, we had to do our part to help with local economic development. Even though our fairways and bowling green were unplayable, we had a reasonable chance of reopening for business within a few months. We needed a big splash event to tell the world that we were ready and willing. So, at that meeting, on that night, emboldened by Forrest’s advice, I announced to the assembly that the club was setting itself a big hairy aggressive goal, to conduct a pro-am tournament before the end of the year. To many citizens at the meeting such a goal may have seemed absurd. But we set the goal because we realised we needed to set it: for ourselves, for the district, and for the effect on morale of the assembly that night.
And, by the way, before the end of the year we didn’t run just one pro-am; we ran two.
My two examples so far have been of very senior, high-profile executives: people who expect and receive respect and obedience if only because of their status. My third example is a Marysville resident who exercised her influence without these advantages. In fact, you could say that this leader had influence precisely because she didn’t have these advantages: because the people with whom she dealt appreciated that what she was trying to do would have little personal payoff to her.
Her name is Judy, and in the months following Black Saturday she created a community enterprise that became known as Plant Aid. Its mission was to connect the gardeners of the Marysville Triangle district with those who wanted to support the rebuilding initiatives following the bushfires. This enterprise was born just six days after the fires, on the day telephone communications were first restored. Judy telephoned the Jon Faine morning talkback program on ABC 774 and proposed a way of helping out the people of our district that might appeal to those of modest means, or those gardeners of Victoria who wanted to do something to help us but could not think of a way to do it. She suggested that these gardeners propagate plants and seedlings, and hold them in reserve for the gardeners of Marysville—for the day when they returned to establish their homes and gardens.
Let me put this into context. When almost all other local people were still totally focused on their own personal tragedies—and despite her own traumas from the bushfire—Judy saw the symbolic importance of getting people gardening again, and of giving people hope for the future. And she set out to do something then, in the early stages when a boost to morale was sorely needed. The benefits in restoring the community’s identity seem obvious now, but many people shook their heads when the idea was first born and the notion of regrowing gardens seemed impossibly distant and secondary.
Before she had finished talking to the ABC, its switchboard had received six telephone calls of support. And the momentum continued. In the days and weeks that followed, Judy got a commitment from agencies all over Australia, ranging from corporations, through community garden clubs, to ordinary citizens. One of the more touching contributions was a $20 note from an 86-year-old lady, which came in an envelope addressed simply to ‘Judy, The plant lady, Marysville’. (The postmistress knew who it was for.) She worked tirelessly, and inspired others to do likewise. She negotiated and soothed and organised local citizens and big donors alike, and left them all feeling that their needs had been satisfied.
Enlisting the aid of celebrity gardener Don Burke and other media sources, Judy raised more than $35,000 and she continued to receive calls of support from businesses and groups for many months afterwards. Plant Aid became the employer of two permanent part-time staff and the operator of a large nursery, and its plants, shrubs and seedlings continue to be distributed to Marysville gardeners.
However fascinating we might find these examples of outstanding individual leadership, the smart leader never loses sight of the fundamental fact that leadership will only be effective and sustainable if it is exercised as a collaborative process. And what I’m talking about is much, much more than the simple process of delegating effectively in a team setting (if indeed the process of delegation can be called simple). I’m talking about active engagement; and this can only be achieved if the nominated leaders relate to group members in ways that make those members feel respected, feel important, feel that they are not a group but part of a team, and feel that as part of this team they are making a valuable contribution to a worthwhile goal. This feeling of inclusion and self-esteem is a powerful force.
Let me mention some examples.
The first concerns the committee and senior staff of the Marysville Community Golf and Bowls Club, mentioned earlier. I’m quite sure that at least part of the basis for the extraordinary effort of all these people was that the committee framed its vision very much in community terms. Every time one of us spoke in public, whether it was to the members or in public speeches or media presentations, we spoke of the key role of the golf club in community recovery. We stressed that we were working for a more important outcome than simply the restoration of our playing facilities; that the club’s future and the community’s future were inextricably linked. We sought to articulate the goal, as well as a logical path to its fulfilment.
The second example relates to the Marysville and Triangle Development Group. Its nucleus was a half dozen or so local citizens who initially took it on themselves to provide a conduit between the community and the authorities, a process that somewhat naturally morphed into the broader activity of taking the initiative for energising the community as part of the recovery process. The community leadership group took Andrew Forrest’s words—that recovering communities not only can do it for themselves but must do it for themselves—to heart. We established a charter. We set operational and strategic goals. We consulted intensively with the community. And we ensured legitimacy by conducting elections in the middle of the year. At all stages—sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously—we did things to engage the spirits of the community.
Such a philosophy was all the more important because it was the direct antithesis of the approach that the authorities wanted us to follow. They wanted us to wait for a phased program of reconstruction to unfold, and to take advantage of the multitude of services that were increasingly provided. Their assumption was that communities that have just been subjected to a disaster will be still dazed by the experience, and therefore will not be capable of managing their own destiny.
Perhaps this philosophy makes sense to a politician or a senior bureaucrat. But it ignores two vital truths about social activity: that the very process of engagement stimulates and lifts the human spirit; and that the recovery of the spirit after a disaster is just as important as the recovery of the physical environment in which people live.
This aspect, the importance of the spirit, is something that is fundamental to the concept of leadership, but it is not well understood. It illustrates the essence of ‘followership’, the neglected other side of the leadership coin. ‘Spirit’ denotes the emotional or psychological side of engagement, in respect to the effect of leadership on optimism, morale, psychic energy and the like. ‘Followership’ is very far from being a passive process, and entails the process of actively engaging and collaborating with the plan and the program that someone else is proposing, not just because doing so furthers one’s own material interest, but because of the intrinsic satisfaction we derive from participating in a collective process aimed at the greater good.
If there were a recipe for what I call the ‘magic spark effect’, it would involve six significant ingredients.
Most fundamentally, effective leaders require competence. You’ll never get people to collaborate with you if they don’t trust that you have the necessary know-how. All our examples show competence in spades, derived from the professional and personal backgrounds of the individuals, from having a good brain and an understanding of ‘how the world wags’, and by collaborating to maximise individual strengths and compensate for individual vulnerabilities. In situations of uncertainty, when most people have no idea what to do next, let alone what to do after that, they respond strongly to a person who seems to know what they are doing and where they are going. Like John Cantwell on that Sunday evening so soon after the disaster.
The second ingredient is character. I use this word in the sense of being moral and principled, trustworthy and reliable, without an agenda, and prepared to put the needs of the team and the institution ahead of your own needs. (An old-fashioned term for this is ‘honour’.) There are many parts to character. As well as honour and ethics, character involves the sense of courage and self-confidence that leads to the exercise of initiative. Like Andrew Forrest: Australia’s richest man, putting aside pressing business concerns to work alongside the people in the bushfire-affected areas; getting on with things without first asking somebody’s permission, and particularly without having to work a proposal through the bureaucracy. Character includes the qualities of resilience and doggedness. And character includes the generosity of spirit to allow others to take the credit for the accomplishment of a team effort.
The third and fourth ingredients relate to what’s involved in working with people. I call these collaboration and consideration.
As a leader, you don’t necessarily ‘lead from the front’, organising and managing processes. Leadership is a team sport. This especially applies when those in the team are well qualified and keen to achieve the goals. A leader leads best when they elicit active engagement and purposeful decision making by others. As head of the community golf and bowls club, I saw my main task as simply to make it easier for the members of my team to do what they needed to do. I left most of the day-to-day activities to the excellent citizens who were my colleagues in this enterprise, managing the process as necessary so that everybody was pulling in the same direction and their total effect was greater than the sum of the parts. I sought to ‘stay in the crow’s nest’ so that I could look ahead to the next challenge in the recovery process.
I also saw it as my role to provide the support that all the members of these teams needed: support that ranged from ensuring that they had the resources and technical advice when it was needed, through to continual reassurance that they were on the right track and that they were doing a great job. And this is where the ingredient of consideration comes in. People won’t trust you if they don’t feel that you are fair dinkum about respecting them as individuals and that you hold their individual and collective interests as the priority.
Leaders are not micromanagers. Leaders get people aligned and working together to achieve shared goals, and support them with resources and advice so they can get on with the job.
And leaders hold the strategic vision, which brings me to the fifth ingredient: strategic consciousness. The consistently effective leader can see the bigger picture; can see where the goals and direction of the group fit in with those of the broader constituency. And more than this: such a leader is able to simultaneously consider and cope with a number of different levels of thought and activity. While they are dealing with the immediate crisis, they are thinking about its implications for the broader plan and how it might affect the team’s ability to tackle both its short and medium term objectives. Like Marysville citizen Judy, who recognised the strategic importance of getting people gardening again, and of giving people hope that things could be done in the foreseeable future—even while she was still dealing with her own wounds.
Not all effective leaders have a sense of strategic consciousness. This especially applies to those who are operating simply at the tactical level: responsible for getting jobs done on a day-to-day basis. But I have rarely seen a leader operating successfully at the higher levels of an organisation without this ability.
The final ingredient that I will mention is communication. Getting the message across—like John Cantwell with his down-to-earth, sympathetic and unruffled dealings with a diverse crowd of shell-shocked people; like Andrew Forrest with his articulate challenge to reach beyond ourselves; like Judy with her ability to persuade others of her vision for the re-gardening of Marysville, striking just the right balance of confidence, empathy and moral authority.
Of course, all leaders have to communicate. But the best ones do so in ways that have an impact on the heart as well as on the head. They communicate to influence and inspire, not just to inform. In part, they do this through their choice of words and by having a sincere and compelling delivery style, and by ensuring that what they say and how they say it is congruent with what they do.
You will communicate best if you have the courage to ‘get away from the lectern’; to speak, like John Cantwell did, from the cuff using plain and vivid language and in the right tone of voice. Some people seem blessed with an innate ability to do this. But my own experience tells me that effective oral communication and top-notch public speaking skills are generally learned and honed by dint of hard work and continual practice.
Skill in communication is derived from strengths in all the other five factors. Showing that you know what you’re talking about (competence), plainly being a person who can be trusted (character), patently going beyond self-interest for the good of the team (consideration), being enthusiastic about working through others (collaboration), and maintaining awareness of the whole picture (consciousness). All these ingredients help to make that impact on the heart as well as on the head, and the combination of all these is greater than the sum of the parts. The effect is magical and profound, and usually inexplicable through the objective analysis of normal business processes.
The six ingredients combine to make a powerful leadership brew that mainstream literature describes as ‘transformational’—the kind of leadership that gives people hope in tough times, and that appeals to their hearts as well as their heads and hip pockets. This is because action that comes from the heart tends to spark performance—and even sacrifice—beyond the ordinary.
Only the best kind of leadership can take a community or an organisation towards a brighter, more sustainable future.
Why don’t we see such leadership more often? Some might say that it’s because the ability to lead ‘transformationally’ is a natural talent; you’ve either got it or you haven’t. But I don’t subscribe to this. Each of the six qualities—with the possible exception of consciousness—can be developed by the right teaching, coaching and practice. But if you want to be a leader for the tough times you need to work hard on your game and take every opportunity to build your skills.
It is all too tempting to use a less demanding leadership approach when things are stable. The kind of leadership that works best is neither easy to acquire nor easy to practise. And it will come at a cost. You will have to spend time on many activities that you could be devoting ‘to your in tray’ and to administration and immediate priorities, time you could be spending on tasks that meet the short-term needs of your stakeholders. A more mundane carrot-and-stick style takes less effort. No wonder so many of us choose this easier short-term option.
But you are likely to find that your choice of the lazy option becomes a handicap in the times when you do need to be this kind of leader. This is not just because such a style must become habitual in order to be resilient but because being a tough-times leader in the easy times helps you to establish ‘moral capital’: a store of credit and faith in you as the leader that you can draw on in the tough times. This particularly applies to character, which is not something that you can turn on and off.
Let me leave you with some final thoughts.
First, aspiring leaders will benefit from the habit of reflecting on what they do as leaders and why certain behaviours have certain effects. Leadership is a science as well as an art. Understanding the science sharpens your appreciation of its artistic application. (My professional motto for a number of years has been that ‘there is nothing as practical as a good theory’.) My position in the Marysville community after Black Saturday gave me an insider’s view of all this and more during 2009. And as I watched and I listened and I ‘did’ leadership, I learned a lot. Just as importantly, as I practised leadership myself in 2009, I was able to perform my own running self-critique. I was able to learn from my own successes and mistakes, and adapt both my own style and my deepening understanding of leadership in general.
Second, subconsciously at least, many of us tend to associate ‘leadership’ with something done by those in positions of power within the community: the captains and the kings, the CEOs and the bigwigs, that is, not by ‘everyday Australians’ like us. Management books and articles from business magazines unknowingly reinforce this by focusing all their examples on CEOs and celebrities. But we shouldn’t look for examples and direction only from ‘them’ rather than from ‘us’, because in so doing we deprive ourselves of ‘ordinary’ opportunities for leadership and the ‘beyond ordinary’ learning that comes with it. Judy—the extraordinary ‘ordinary citizen’—could be regarded as the most effective of our examples. Because she had no institutional status or power to provide initial status and credibility, all of her leadership success was down to her intrinsic ability and character.
Third, you don’t become a leader overnight. And you will certainly be handicapped in exercising leadership if you delay starting to develop yourself as a leader until after early adulthood. It’s a process you have to do grow into, and it’s a role that takes some getting used to. Taking responsibility when things are tough and promoting yourself as someone who can be trusted to take charge in such situations requires a lot of self-confidence and comfort with one’s ability. I’m not talking about cockiness and ego here: I’m talking simply about being comfortable with what, for most people, is the toughest task they will ever undertake.
My fourth point is a recommendation, particularly aimed at aspiring young leaders who may read this book. Start as early as you can. Put yourself forward to help out when you can, and take the lead when this is necessary (naturally, without being too ambitious initially). Build experience at working with and through people. Team sport is a common way in which this is done, but joining community teams and committees and the like will also be beneficial. And if it sometimes seems a drudge—as it almost inevitably will from time to time—stick with it, because no life learning experience is wasted for the aspiring leader. Try to choose the broadest educational experiences you can. Travel is another useful area from which you can learn. The more you learn about society, economics, politics and the way things work in the world, the better leader you will be.
You are going to make mistakes—all leaders do. However, those leaders who emerge as people we trust and respect are those for whom no mistake is ever wasted, but is instead seen as an opportunity to learn.
My very last revelation is the one about which I am most proud. It is only fair that I tell you that Judy, the exemplary local leader, is my wife. I have learned more about leadership from watching her, especially in the context of my refreshed understanding of the true process of leadership, than I have from any book.
I can only wish that you, the reader, will be as lucky as I have been in choosing partners in your life and endeavours.
 After his assignment to bushfire recovery, General Cantwell was deployed as Australian commander in the Middle East. An account of his military career is contained in his recent book: Cantwell, J 2012, Exit wounds: one Australian’s war on terror, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.
 A fascinating account of Judy’s story is contained in her 2009 witness statement. See Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, Witness statement: Judith Margaret Frazer-Jans, http://vol4.royalcommission.vic.gov.au/index.php?pid=100 – editor.