As Australians watched their country burn over the summer school holidays, we were all given an unforgettable reminder about what leadership in a crisis looks like.

We now know it looks like the 150,000 volunteer firefighters across Australia who left their families to face down monster infernos, making split-second decisions to attempt a rescue or save themselves.

The face of leadership is covered by a protective mask on an 11-year-old Mallacoota boy, Finn Burns at the helm of an outboard motor, steering to safety his mother, brother and family dog. Behind them, the sky glows a dirty blood-red as if from another planet.

Leadership is embodied in all the so-called “ordinary” people who leapt into action with garden hoses, set up evacuation centres, jumped into their boats to ferry supplies to cut-off communities, launched fundraisers and scoured the smouldering landscape to rescue wildlife.

These leaders took the initiative when the authorities were unavailable or overwhelmed by the scope of the disaster.

Everyday Australians stepping up

NSW Transport Minister and Malua Bay resident, Andrew Constance, recounted on ABC’s Q&A program: “There were community relief centres that were set up immediately after that fire event, without the involvement of government. That was what was heartening. It was in Cobargo, Quaama, everywhere.

“I think the passion that people brought to that period, immediately after those nasty fire events, was something special. So, you can’t bottle it, you can’t pay for it, government can’t deliver it.”

Sitting in the ABC’s studio in Queanbeyan, just days after fighting fires on his own property and evacuating to the beach, the enormity of the experience was written on his exhausted face. He spoke about how he was still reeling and would get counselling to help through the aftermath.

Leadership consultant, Wayne Burns, lost a house at Lake Conjola to the fires and reflected on the difference between leadership and authority, penning an opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald.

“Leadership is an art exercised and practised deliberately. It is about influencing, encouraging, inspiring, and sometimes pushing and cajoling without being asked,” he writes.

“Leadership does not require authority, although it helps if a leader has the authority to direct and command resources.”

Filling a leadership vacuum

Speaking to The Ethics Centre of his experience at Lake Conjola, Burns says: “The people who had authority were overwhelmed. A lot was happening very quickly.”

He says that while those in government and emergency services were doing their best, they could not step beyond the authority of their official roles.

This created a “vacuum” which was filled by people who did not have authority, he says. These people took the initiative to do what needed to be done, commandeering water tanks and tools and making decisions about the property of other people.

“They stepped out of their everyday role, whether this was as a neighbour or as a retired person, and they created themselves a position of informal leadership.”

In Burns’ street, a retired engineer stayed behind in his home and became the unofficial spokesperson and decision-maker for around 24 neighbours. He negotiated with utilities companies, organised for dangerous trees to be cut down, helped Police track down residents, obtained access for insurance assessors, and arranged for spraying for asbestos.

“We all gave him informal power to make decisions on our behalf because we knew he had our interests at heart and we knew he was capable and we trusted him. So, it’s a transfer of trust from those with formal authority to those with informal authority,” says Burns, who studied leadership at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

US management consultant, Gary Hamel, says people who wonder if they are a leader should imagine themselves with no power.

“If, given this starting point, you can mobilise others and accomplish amazing things, then you’re a leader. If you can’t, well then, you’re a bureaucrat,” writes Hamel in an article with Polly LaBarre.

Withdrawing consent to be led

Burns says Australians traditionally have a respect for authority and become indignant if officials let them down. When that happens, they may refuse to recognise the legitimacy of those leaders.

In January, angry Cobargo, NSW, locals turned on Prime Minister Scott Morrison, with some refusing to shake his hand. “In that situation, the Prime Minister has the authority, but he wasn’t afforded the informal leadership by those people, who had withdrawn from him their permission for him to lead them,” says Burns.

Policies, procedures and protocol can constrain people in authority. However, in a crisis, greater leadership can sometimes be shown by those who step beyond their authorised roles. Burns points to Minister Constance, who broke ranks politically to criticise the Federal Government’s response to the bushfire emergency.

Minister Constance told a television interviewer that the Prime Minister had probably “got the welcome he deserved” when he visited Cobargo without alerting Constance, who is the local member.

He also criticised some of the nation’s well-known charities for their slowness in delivering aid.

Burns says that Minister Constance demonstrated natural leadership in his actions facing into the crisis.

“He stepped up and he really led that community because he knew what was happening, he knew what they needed. He really did stick his neck out and rock the boat,” says Burns of Constance.

But it’s also okay to be a follower 

Burns says the people most likely to step up into informal leadership have self-belief and some understanding of the legal or physical risks they are taking. “There is no personality type, there are no natural-born leaders – they don’t exist – people just decide to act.” 

Burns says there is also nothing wrong with being a follower: “Not everyone wants, or can, lead.” The role those individuals can play is to put their trust into someone who has their confidence. “That person may not know the answer, but can bring people together to get the answer.” 

If you are interested in discussing any of the topics raised in this article in more depth with The Ethics Centre’s consulting team, please make an enquiry via our website.