In times of crisis: lessons from Abbott's leadership of MH17

By David Donaldson

July 28, 2014

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has been praised in recent days for his leadership in handling the MH17 disaster. But what qualities are desirable in a public sector leader during an emergency?

“Take a Bex and lie down.” That’s the blunt advice from corporate advisor Graeme Samuel.

“Remain calm,” the former Australian Competition and Consumer Commission head (and editorial adviser to The Mandarin) said. “Don’t react to media commentary, because it tends to be overblown, and at times will push you to be taking a course of action not desirable in the long run. Be sympathetic where people have suffered loss and keep your eye on the main game and the long term outcome.

“I like to make a mental decision tree — examine the current situation and look at the outcome I want to achieve. And say to myself: ‘what are the steps that need to happen, and what are the roadblocks?'”

In the early moments of a crisis, there will be parties, including media and vested interests, pushing for a certain outcome, but “careful planning” is most important.

“Public servants have this all the time, because there’s layered upon that the very public glare upon their masters,” Samuel told The Mandarin. “The political imperative is not necessarily the best imperative to achieve a desirable outcome that’s in the public interest. I would recommend public servants make a decision tree to look at the alternatives.”

The calls to withdraw Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invitation to the G20 were one such example. Despite much media excitement, “calmer heads prevailed”, Samuel says. “It’s not necessarily the case that it should not be withdrawn”, but that a snap decision could easily have been the wrong one.

Helen Silver, who led the Victorian public service through the Black Saturday bushfires as secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet in Victoria, thinks the key to leadership in a crisis is maintaining a “quiet decisiveness”. Leaders should remain “in charge and calm but feeling the emotion … that creates the confidence you need” to deal with the problem.

This is the sort of leadership Silver believes was shown by Victorian premier John Brumby during Black Saturday, and has been demonstrated by Abbott, who is “doing an excellent job” on MH17.

Institutional design is important to “provide a structured way for well constructed, well thought-through advice to come to the fore”, adds Silver. Without such structures — which Australian state and federal governments have all developed since September 11 — competing priorities and time restrictions can lead to poor decision-making.

There is also a need, according to Silver, “to keep information available. Provide accurate, up-to-date information, even if you’re repeating it. People have a large need for that, keeping the system open so you can get on with your work.”

Terry Moran, the former head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, believes the Prime Minister has handled the recent crisis “very well”, with clear explanations of events and an authoritative approach to describing what will be done.

He told The Mandarin leaders should focus on gathering as much information as possible: “In a crisis, normally you don’t have all the information you need before you must take decisions. Because partial information is typical in a crisis, specialist expertise, judgment and experience in the business of government is important. The senior people in departments and agencies at national and state level have this and are first rate in their support of political leaders managing a crisis.”

To respond effectively, says Moran, public servants must have “well accepted and effective ways of working together” — noting that Australia’s structures for dealing with crises are “better formalised and organised than the UK equivalent”.

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