Opinion: leadership is not a title, it is what you do

By Kristy Muir

Tuesday January 14, 2020

Prime Minister Scott Morrison. AAP/Lukas Koch

“The task of leading during a sustained crisis — whether you are the CEO of a major corporation … [or the prime minister of a country burning] — is treacherous”1

Heifetz, Grashow & Linksy wrote this in the Harvard Business Review in response to the GFC in 2009 in an article titled, Leadership in a (Permanent) Crisis.2 Their thoughts are equally relevant more than a decade later as Australia burns.

Scott Morrison has absolutely schooled us in the treacherousness of leadership in times of crisis.

Witnessing our PM navigate the treacherousness during the bush fires has been (at times) gob-smacking. We have seen, read, and heard many critiques of Scott Morrison’s leadership throughout the bush fire crisis. A few reminders:

Remembering the past…

One thing we know about leadership is the danger of blaming an individual when they do not work in isolation. Further, successive leadership failures by governments can be traced back over more than a decade. The nature and scale of these horrific fires were predicted by Ross Garnaut in his 2008 Garnaut Climate Change Review. Professor Garnaut was commissioned “by all of the governments of Australia’s federation to examine the impacts of climate change on Australia and to recommend policy frameworks to improve the prospects of sustainable prosperity.” Four years later, the Productivity Commission also warned and made recommendations to governments about how to handle climate change in its 2012 Climate Change Adaption Report. These are just two independent, government-commissioned reports (and it is likely will have another report on its way via the proposed royal commission into the bushfires). Climate change, its implications and recommendations to combat it are not new. We have been repeatedly warned about its impact and have a wealth of recommendations that have not yet been acted upon.

This sustained crisis requires a deep understanding and implementation of the effective leadership needed to deal with, recover from and secure the future. The effective leadership we need in a long-term crisis has two phases. Heifetz, Grashow & Linksy explain: “First is that emergency phase, when your task is to stabilize the situation and buy time. Second is the adaptive phase, when you tackle the underlying causes of the crisis and build the capacity to thrive in a new reality.”

Considering this, it’s easy to see just how spectacularly Morrison has stumbled, fallen, gotten back up (and repeated) on numerous occasions in both phases. While we have begun to see some positive recovery steps, including an initial $2bn commitment to recovery, and the establishment of the National Bushfire Recovery Agency to administer the funding, the federal government has not offered solutions to the underlying causes of the crisis and has stumbled in trying to build capacity for people to thrive in a new reality.

Leadership in a sustained crisis

It is misnomer to proclaim an absence of leadership in Australia during this crisis. After all, “Leadership is not a title. It’s a behaviour” (Robin Sharma). We have seen remarkable leadership from our fire commissioners and other emergency service authorities, from the fire service volunteers and professionals, from our first responders, individuals leading volunteer efforts and recovery responses, from people who have advocated, fought for and are actively improving policy and practical responses (from recovery support to access to smoke masks), and from people who are providing support to families, friends and strangers.

The individual, family and community responses to the emergency phase of the crisis and the donations and commitments made by people towards the recovery phase have been remarkable. We have seen humanity at its finest. We’ve witnessed Australians and friends of Australia moving away from individualism to collective good in support of others who need it. Communities have, and will continue to, come together to rebuild and to adapt to a different future.

All this, despite people, families and communities experiencing immeasurable stress, grief and trauma. The losses to our people, animals, ecology, property, infrastructure, communities and economy are devastating and the extent is almost unfathomable. This is no temporary crisis; it is an enduring one.

Adapt to lead in a crisis

And so, what we desperately need as a country (indeed what the globe needs and is calling out for) is a long-term commitment to address the adaptive problem — climate change — so that we can thrive in a new reality.

Now, more than ever, we need leaders with effective adaptive leadership skills. These are the leaders who are willing “seize the opportunity of moments like the current one to hit the … reset button. They use the turbulence of the present to build on and bring closure to the past”1 and to change the future.

This will not be easy. As Heifetz, Grashow & Linksy remind us:

The adaptive phase is especially tricky … As you ask [people] to make necessary but uncomfortable adaptive changes in their behaviour or work, they may try to bring you down. People clamour for direction, while you are faced with a way forward that isn’t at all obvious.

It will require exceptional adaptive leadership skills. It will require loss. It will require changes in decisions, policies and behaviours. And most of all, it will require not just courage, but courageous action.

“It is action in the face of fear that demonstrates courage”3. Adaptive leadership is not just a reasonable expectation of any man or woman leading our country; it is critical for the future of our beautiful country and planet.


  1. Heiftz, Grashow & Linsky with author addition.
  2. Harvard scholars who have decades of experience examining, diagnosing and supporting highly effective leadership under very different conditions; also see their 2009 book The Practice of Adaptive Leadership.
  3. Kegan & Lahey, 2009.

About the author
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
The Mandarin Premium

Insights & analysis that matter to you

Subscribe for only $5 a week

Get Premium Today