Fronting up to the community is key to ethical leadership — and wins public trust

By David Donaldson

Monday February 3, 2020

Cheryl Batagol

Buck-passing is all too easy within a bureaucracy — indeed, in a large organisation governed by rules it is often difficult to fault anyone in particular.

Yet when things go really wrong and people’s lives are seriously affected, it’s not enough just to say “it’s complicated”. The community wants to know their complaints have been heard and that someone is working to fix the problem.

This is where it can be powerful for a leader to front up and admit things could have been handled better.

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Cheryl Batagol, chair of Victoria’s Environmental Protection Agency, argues this is an important element of ethical leadership.

At last year’s Public Sector Week, hosted by IPAA Victoria, she recalled the time she spent five hours discussing a polluting waste dump with frustrated and angry residents.

“I want you to picture this: it’s a cold night in Lyndhurst in southeast Melbourne a few years ago. It’s a large-ish nondescript function room at a hotel. There are about 50 people in the room sitting on hotel chairs, in a sort of circle, and I am one of those people,” says Batagol.

This was the EPA’s first trial of a restorative justice conference, and the issue was the pollution impact on the local community of a privately-owned landfill, sitting less than 150 metres from some houses.

For months residents had been subjected to the smell of rotting garbage.

“The community are fed up, they’ve lost faith in the operator long ago,” she explains.

“Local government has been unable to assist, and the community is frustrated, very angry and the room is tense.

“In the circle are community members, the landfill operator, the local government, the regional waste resource recovery group — a state government entity — and EPA. Because it’s now our inaugural trial of this type of engagement, I’m sitting as a full member of the group, not an observer, so we all go around the room and introduce ourselves to the circle.

“There’s a facilitator, and the facilitator started by asking the community members to detail the impact the landfill was having. Passion and anger rise in the room very quickly. A community member, a man, rises in his chair, crosses the room, stands in front of me in my space, I’m sitting down, and he angrily points his finger at me, jabbing the air, and says: “I don’t trust you!” There was just silence in the room.

“That is the point, isn’t it? That we have failed this man, his family, and that community. They were angrier with the EPA than they were with the landfill operator at that moment, because they believed it was our job to protect them and their amenity, their health and their environment — and they were right. We had lost their collective trust.

“Within the EPA at that time we were right in the middle of our first set of reforms focusing on our compliance and enforcement work, and I was actually really proud of the work we were doing. But I realised that when things go wrong, when pollution occurs, we must do more than just our job in terms of compliance and enforcement. We need to demonstrate leadership — personal, authentic, leadership. And that involved outward-facing accountability and — for me at least — to front up.”

Planned burn gone wrong

Another example Batagol cites is when Adam Fennessy, the then-secretary of the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, apologised at a community meeting for a planned burn that escaped containment lines and destroyed four houses.

Adam Fennessy
Adam Fennessy

Fennessy told residents gathered in Lancefield: “I am here today to say sorry to you and your community. I am deeply sorry for the distress I’ve caused you and the enormous impact it’s had on your lives. My job is to minimise the threat of bushfire to your community, and the Lancefield-Cobaw burn was meant to do that, but what it did was put you and your properties at risk.”

By coincidence, Batagol’s friend had been affected by the fire and attended the session.

“She said to me she was going to the meeting, and in her words, she was full of anger, and wanted to make someone accountable for what they did. She told me a couple of days later that she was totally taken aback by Adam’s apology, and because he sounded sincere she accepted his apology and his promise to implement the recommendations.”

And it’s not just about apologies — gaining the community’s trust and working more closely with them on future planned burns gives government access to local knowledge about how fire plays out in the landscape, improving effectiveness and safety, Fennessy says.

The ethical leader

For Batagol this demonstrates the importance of senior public servants venturing out of the office to meet the communities impacted — both positively and negatively — by their work.

It’s also about leadership, which must come from all public servants, “no matter what level of the VPS, whether an employee, team leader, manager or executive”.

“It means, from my point of view as the chair of an organisation, setting a tone from the top, engendering a leadership culture across the organisation. A leadership where integrity and ethics and lived values are lived by everybody in the organisation.”

When it comes to defining ethical leadership, there are lots of frameworks around, but Batagol likes the principles espoused by Professor Peter Northouse of Michigan University. His book, Leadership Theory and Practice, outlines five principles:

“One, ethical leaders respect others. They’re sensitive to their impact on others — even in a big room, like Adam had to deal with. They listen to others, and they are tolerant of opposing points of view,” Batagol explains.

“Two, ethical leaders serve others. They have a calling to serve and engage in servant leadership. And I note the term ‘servant leadership’ has come back onto our agenda, but it was actually described by Robert Greenleaf in an essay in 1970. Servant leaders selflessly prioritise serving the interests of others in a way that will benefit others. They care about the welfare of others, and they engage in behaviours such as mentoring, empowering others and team-building.

“Three, ethical leaders are just. They place a high priority on fairness and justice when making decisions, including demonstrating fairness towards individuals, as well as the broader community.

“Four, ethical leaders have integrity. They demonstrate honesty and integrity, which helps to build trust, strengthen relationships, build culture in their organisation, and build their own organisation’s reputation. They’re also transparent in dealing with others, whilst being diplomatic and sensitive to the needs of others. Importantly, they follow through on commitments, they do what they say they’re going to do.

“Five, ethical leaders build community. They’re aware of the needs and aspirations of their communities, and look to align their leadership activities to help meet community goals.”

Leaders need to build ethical cultures right through their organisations, Batagol argues.

“We need to be ready to be accountable to the community that we serve every single day. Our communities respond to ethical leadership, and that’s the basis for building or regaining trust.”

Engaging with the community face-to-face, with honesty and respect, really can help rebuild that trust. She closed by referring back to the Lyndhurst landfill meeting:

“So at the end of five hours on that cold evening in Lyndhurst we were walking to our cars. We had a restorative justice agreement, just about, organised between the landfill operator and the local community. And by the way, it was supposed to take two hours, it took five, it was long, it was hard, and it was very, very emotional.

“As we walked to the car I was tapped on the shoulder, and it was the man who had so aggressively confronted me. He stopped me and he said, you know I did not mean that I can’t trust you. I just could not trust EPA. But I can trust you. I think now I can maybe trust EPA.”

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