My story

It was February 7, 2009, a stiflingly hot day. The wind whipped through the eucalypts in Victoria’s Kinglake Ranges. On the radio there was talk of spot fires in neighbouring municipalities. Mid-afternoon and power was cut, leaving me with no water, lights or phone. I saw flames racing across the hillside on an adjacent property and the sky turned black as big clouds of billowing smoke rolled across the horizon.

I wet blankets to put over my babies who were frightened and confused. As fire approached on three sides, I wondered if we had enough water in our tanks to put up a fight. Our home backed on to the State Forest. There was no time to evacuate. I moved Matilda and Lachlan to a neighbour’s property. Craig stayed to defend our home.

I spent the night in my neighbour’s yard. Gas bottles exploded and rooves imploded around us. My heart beat so fast I thought my chest might explode. I felt the blood drain from my extremities. I’d never been this frightened before. I wondered if this was it? My mind raced and my body was paralysed with fear. Should I man the hose (knowing that if I saved the house, I saved the children) or head inside to cradle my babies as everything burned down around us? They were sleeping at opposite ends of the house. Who would I choose? Tears rolled down my cheeks. No mother should face that. Time stood still.

The wind changed and I was spared the decision. My emergency services radio and pager went off. It was only then I realised the extent of the destruction. Our town had burned down. One hundred and seventy-three lives were lost, one hundred and twenty from our community. More than a thousand of my neighbour’s homes burnt down.

Five years later there are still reminders of the biggest natural disaster in Australian history. Blackened tree trunks, emotional scars etched into people’s faces, insurance battles, depression,  fragmented relationships, domestic violence, bureaucracy gone mad, anxiety, divisions, cancer, traumatised children, broken men, suicides, misspent money, well meaning but ill equipped decision makers…Everyone in our community lost something – our life as we knew it on February 6, 2009.

I have learnt valuable lessons about myself: about vulnerability, relationships, strength, weaknesses (and the strength in my weaknesses). I’ll save them for another time!

I’ve also learned valuable lessons about leadership, particularly leadership of traumatised people. I’ve seen that our ability to do good is a reflection of our tenacity, ability to listen to the voices we are representing and the courage to at times ‘work outside the system’! I’ve seen the great power that emerges when a community heals from the ‘bottom up’ rather than the ‘top down’.

Kenyon ( said “We are trained to ask “What’s wrong and how do we fix it ?”. And that is precisely what Kevin Rudd did when he drove into Kinglake soon after the fires and proudly announced, “We will rebuild this town brick by brick”.

Kenyon ( suggests that instead, we should start by asking – “What works, what have we got, what’s possible and who cares?”‘ What our then Prime Minister could have said is “Not only will we rebuild this town brick by brick, but also person, by person (utilizing our best leaders and all our resources!)’. For it matters not what infrastructure we have, if there is nobody left to utilize it!

So, what works, what have we got, what’s possible and who cares?

What works?

At the time of Black Saturday, we didn’t really know what would assist our town to recover. The bushfires raised a large number of leadership issues. Australia had never faced a disaster of this enormity. Agencies had never responded in a combined effort of this magnitude and complexity. There was ‘behind the scenes’ political manoeuvring that the public will never be privy to that had far reaching implications in the lives of thousands of people.

There has been huge growth in the area of emergency response and recovery since 2009, valuable lessons learnt, research completed, necessary documentation and implementation of systems and processes and much more.

As a nation, we may not yet know what works, but I’m confident that we are getting closer to an answer! One leadership question to emerge is– ‘How can we better work with communities in disaster recovery?’

What have we got?

Today, Australia is impacted by disasters that occur more frequently and with greater intensity than ever before. Through media, and increased access to travel, we are also exposed to a similar occurrences across the planet.

In my role as a community leader I have visited disaster effected localities around Australia sharing stories, conducting research and connecting service providers with people in need. Whilst every community and disaster is different, there are definite observable patterns in behaviour, systems and issues raised.

We have the opportunity, through good leadership (at all levels) and great execution, to minimise the impact or shorten the length of the recovery journey. This requires an evolution in leadership practices: people with specific knowledge, experience and skills capable of mobilising all people to achieve a shared vision; people able to implement effective and inclusive systems and all in a relatively short period of time!

Who cares?

Part of the complexity of this issue lies in the huge number of stakeholders who do care! The complexity is further exacerbated by the range of motivating factors behind their investment of time and energy.

For instance, individuals, communities and businesses directly impacted by a disaster are likely to be traumatised (without fully understanding the impact trauma has on their decision making ability) and fatigued by the event and subsequent emotional outfall. This is especially evident in the early stages of recovery, a time when communities are asked to make important decisions that affect themselves, those around them and possibly future generations) around re-establishing routines, rebuilding infrastructure and getting life ‘back to normal’. This raises the question ‘At what stage should the community be engaged and involved as participants rather than recipients of service provision’?

There is no denying that communities require assistance to recover. Aid agencies (like Red Cross, Salvation Army, Rotary, etc.) and Government Departments are usually the first to step in.

Ironically, in their sincere effort to help the community, many do a disservice. Their offices are typically located far from the disaster zone and open limited hours. Government processes are often slow and rarely transparent. Recovery staff change frequently with inadequate filtering down of recently established practices. Governments have a top-down approach meaning access to decision makers requires an exorbitant amount of form filling out and going through ‘gatekeepers’ who speak a specialized (often inaccessible) language!

Bureaucracies tend to operate in silos, limiting community involvement in the bigger picture (e.g. public safety, parks, recreation, human services, public health, housing, economic development, transportation, arts and culture, etc.) is associated with a different department, each with its own staff, meetings, plans and programs.

Governments impose their own agenda which distracts the community from its priorities. They don’t sufficiently value the time and contributions of the individuals who do get involved rending them less likely to participate in the future.

There is a tendency to ‘do to’ rather than ‘do with’. This emphasis on expert-driven services often ‘replicates existing top-down (and potentially) exclusionary delivery methods and thus fails to meet the needs or engage the potential of communities to contribute and take ownership of ‘everyday’ resilience’ (Rogers 2013).

With these things in mind, we must ask ‘How can communities be empowered to reach their participatory potential and their voices be heard authentically in disaster recovery’?

Government can’t address all of the needs of a community (especially a traumatised one) in isolation. Governments are better served recognizing that their communities have untapped resources as well as unmet needs. Diers reflects -“Building true partnerships between government and community isn’t easy. Before they can empower the community, agencies must first cease the harm that they inflict on community and begin removing their own obstacles to engagement”.

Local residents who understand local needs, often have more creative, holistic and appropriate solutions. By empowering and partnering with communities, Government not only address their own resource-based shortfalls, but also (through partnerships) better address increasingly complex, newly emerging social and environmental issues.

What’s possible?

Legally and contractually, there are some things each of these stakeholders HAVE to drive. The answer to ‘what’s possible?’ lies in the spaces that ARE up for negotiation?

The principle of shared responsibility between governments, business, communities and individuals sits at the core of  the National Strategy for Disaster Resilience (NSDR), released in February 2011.

The challenge lies in applying the principle as this requires disaster managers rethinking and rearticulating their established practices, including;

  • moving away from the traditional top-down, chain-of-command styles of communication and planning;
  • significant cultural and organizational shifts taking place in order to implement participatory strategic planning involving all stakeholders—federal, state and local governments, emergency management practitioners, agencies, residents, technical experts, business and community leaders.

To achieve this requires a move away from disseminating information to engaging with and listening to the community.

‘Consultation’ is often done with communities, ‘engagement’, less so! The consultation process is often fraught with inaccuracies mainly around who gets heard and how information is collected. The first to be heard are those who have lost family or homes (vitally important, but they are usually in the minority). Next are the self appointed leaders, who are often angry, incensed and whom claim (usually fraudulently) to speak for the community. Next are the articulate and/or connected. The silent majority’s opinions are sought superficially. Which begs the questions, ‘Whose voices don’t we hear?‘ and ‘How can we better inquire, openly share views and develop knowledge about each others’ needs and assumptions’?

All parties need to work together to provide balanced and objective information throughout the recovery process to ensure issues are understood, goals and priorities articulated, diverse viewpoints considered, alternatives established and realistic solutions provided.  

For example, shared ownership might include Government providing policy and framework, funding and technical assistance. Community might initiate the planning, conduct broad and inclusive community engagement and drive the process. This results in greater buy in, utilization of huge untapped potential, Government resources leveraging the community’s, as well as more holistic and innovative solutions rather than a ‘one size fits all’ response.

Shared ownership and adoption of inclusive engagement processes (whilst recognising the need for urgency) is not an easy task given the range of stakeholders. Porteus wrote “…in Australia,…we sit back in judgement, deciding whether (someone else) a politician, head of department or corporation has actually ‘performed’ sufficiently well. In most cases, we judge that they have not – and so we support and perpetuate a system that ensures that they cannot. Bad outcomes are someone else’s fault…(and) with the emergence of an increasingly blame-based ethos, it is not surprising that politicians and the bureaucracy are risk averse”.

Shared ownership and adoption of inclusive engagement processes is however necessary if what we seek is the best possible outcome.

Disaster recovery management versus post-disaster leadership

So, what kind of thinking is behind the dominant leadership paradigms displayed in disaster recovery to date?

Hazy (2012) differentiates between leadership (the ability to influence the activities of others to reach a common goal) and management (the process of planning, organising and directing). Most current disaster recovery practices are in fact management and not leadership!

Complex adaptive systems can be observed operating in agencies, Government departments and other bureaucratic organisations (Lichtenstein, et al., 2006). It helps to explain the relational interplay of numerous forces that stand in the way of non-hierarchical decision making.

Of those who do show leadership from the top down in disaster recovery, it is often transactional (Bass et al, 2008) leadership (work for the promise of psychological or material reward, like access to funding, employment, agency programs, decision makers, media, etc.).

Some of the most successful examples of post-disaster leadership have emerged from the bottom up (see page 5). Burns (in Goethals, 2005) talks about transformational leadership, which ‘originates in the personal values and beliefs of leaders, not in an exchange of commodities between leaders and followers’ (Kuhnert & Lewis, 1987, pp. 649-650). Transformational leaders raise followers consciousness, often empowering them to transcend their own self-interests for the greater good and raises the followers’ level of need from lower-level concerns for safety and security to higher-level needs for achievement and self-actualisation (Bass & Bass, 2008, p. 619).

Adopting adaptive and authentic practices

Regardless of leadership styles, adaptive (mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges and thrive ) (Heifetz, et al., 2009, p. 14) and authentic (focusing on transparent and ethical behaviour as well as open sharing of information) (Avolio, et al., 2009) practices are required.

These practices recognise that the systemic ‘gap between aspirations and operational capacity cannot be closed by the expertise and procedures currently in place’ (Creelman, 2009, p. 1), and that solutions may lay with any stakeholder, not only by those in senior positions or management roles.

Adaptive change is uncomfortable as it challenges our most deeply held beliefs and forces us to critically observe events and patterns without forming judgements (Heifetz, et al., 2009). This disequilibrium is however necessary if we are to come up with more effective solutions!

Effective solutions – What would it take to achieve ‘What’s possible?’

Torres (2014) reminds us that ‘Relying on traditional practices will stunt your growth’.

Current disaster recovery structures are perfectly designed to produce the results they get. If we want different/better/quicker results then we have to change the system. George Bernard Shaw once said ‘Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything’. Similarly, Einstein said – ‘We can’t solve problems with the same thinking that created them’.

Improving disaster recovery outcomes requires a change from ‘normal behaviour’ towards:

  • rethinking and rearticulating established practices;
  • moving away from the traditional top-down, chain-of-command styles of communication and planning;
  • focusing on what each stakeholder is uniquely capable of contributing;
  • giving equal voice to community in resource allocation and distribution;
  • encouraging partnerships (‘doing with’ rather than ‘doing to’);
  • finding where people start disagreeing, identify stakeholders, bring the tough questions to the centre of attention and orchestrating the conflict in a productive way to enable progress (Heiftz, 2009)
  • focusing more on the relationships between and interplay of systems/groups/people (Morieux, 2013); what Heiftz (2009) calls ‘getting on the balcony’ as opposed to ‘being on the dance floor’.
  • ‘Cultivate ways of listening to people both musically and analytically, so you can hear the songs beneath the words and detect the underlying values, loyalties and interests that are at stake and being protected’. (Heiftz, 2009)
  • reinforcing integrators and making them more accessible (eg. people already in the system who can weave their magic!) (Morieux, 2013)
  • focusing on strengths as well as needs
  • creating feedback loops that expose people to the consequences of their actions;
  • preparing for an unknown future by building leadership capacity and resilience within communities.

Abandoning ineffective practices is no mean feat in large bureaucracies! It involves creating an environment in which people are required to act differently and ‘unblockers’ (Battiston Consulting) to ensure normal processes and behaviours don’t get in the way of maintaining momentum and achieving the desired outcome.

I have no doubt that, amongst all stakeholders, we have the intellectual vision, spiritual insight and physical resources vital to this transition!

Where am I in all of this?

In the months after the fires, the women in our community exhibited exceptional strength and resilience, keeping families together, supporting communities and advocating for resources. So much good was happening and I really wanted to see the momentum continue. I teamed up with an amazing local woman, Jemima Richards to connect these women.

 We formed a group called FIREFOXES which aimed to encourage disaster affected women to create a ‘new normal’ and realise their dreams. FIREFOXES met regularly for meals, special events and time away. We skied, rode horses, cooked, went to the theatre, listened to guest speakers, ran leadership retreats, indulged in chocolate therapy and much more. Whilst every gathering was different, the messages around resilience, validity and connectedness were fundamentally the same. Together we laughed, shared, supported, indulged, reflected, listened, motivated, educated, empowered and inspired. We acknowledge and address the barriers to people, particularly women, participating in community activities and decision making. Minorityvoices are now heard and the community are richer for their input. In just over 5 years, we have worked with around 6000 members of disaster affected communities across Australia, resulting in improved mental health outcomes, reduced isolation, increased morale and positive networks.

None of this would have happened had it not been for incredible acts of generosity that came our way. Some of it appeared in the form of money. One Sydney community held a fete. Another small group of men ran around the bay on a sponsored fun run. The Victorian Women’s Trust provided seed funding for venue hire and a pot of soup in the early days. Gail Kelly and Westpac sponsored Firefoxes in Queensland after we met at the launch of the Red Shield Appeal.

By far the most powerful gift we were given was pro-bono access to the knowledge, networks and expertise of some incredible people. Di Percy (Corporate Business mentor) guided us through the first 2 years of articulating our vision and developing the organisation. Kaye Bradshaw (Community recovery specialist) and Rowena Allen (Victorian Honour Roll for Women and then CEO of Uniting Care Cutting Edge) mentored us and established our auspice. Barb Huggins (25 years in the NFP sector) did our incorporation, Amanda Gore (internationally renowned communications expert) is our constant reminder to find joy in all we do!

I wish I had space to list all of our friends and supporters, but they know who they are! What is important to remember is that everyone can make a difference!  We all get touched by someone else’s story at some point in our lives and feel compelled to do something. Whilst reaching into your pocket can help, challenge yourself to think more creatively about where and how your passions and skills can make the biggest difference.

Lewis (2014) in “Obama’s Way”, describes how sometimes a mix up/change in direction can be a blessing in disguise. I’ve never done anything like this (disaster recovery) before, but I feel like I’ve been preparing for it all my life! The personal and professional relationships I’ve built over the years, the experiences I’ve had and skills I’ve picked up along the way have all been pivotal.

Firefoxes is the  Victorian Community Group of the Year, won top honours at the Resilient Australia Awards and I have been bestowed with a Pride of Australia Medal.

Lewis (2014) explores the switch from personal achievement to team achievement by focussing on relevance and purpose. With that in mind, I recognise that these accolades are important, however, I know the greatest rewards have come from recognising that I am on purpose, I (through Firefoxes) am making a difference in my own life and the lives of others.

I have narrowed the divide between working from my head and working from my heart. As I clarify my unique contribution and do things I am meant to be doing, I learn, grow, move forwards and find joy.

I am more willing to reflect critically on my leadership history (key influences, motivators, mentors, role models, environment, etc.). I am working on cultivating a deeper curiosity, actively seeking to understand other people, structures, perspectives, connections and patterns.

I am more willing to surround myself/prop myself up with people who complement my skills. I am more conscious of where I am looking to anticipate change and predict my future (particularly what I am reading, the diversity of who I am talking to, the topics we tackle, etc.)

As I (and others) challenge and reflect upon my assumptions and practices, I better understand my strengths and weaknesses. Lewis (2014) in “Obama’s Way”, describes the disastrous impact of negative self talk and comparing himself to others. I now realise that what other people think about me is none of my business! I can’t please all the people all of the time. At the end of the day, I have to live with myself – decisions, actions. I’m working on differentiating healthy fears from those that stem from my insecurities and unnecessarily create barriers.




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