When the rulebook runs out: Anna Bligh on leadership in a crisis

By David Donaldson

Sunday May 31, 2020

Anna Bligh (AAP Image/Bianca De Marchi)

The former premier discusses evacuating a hospital while a cyclone loomed, finding leadership lessons in everyday life, and working from home for the first time in her career.

Leading in a major crisis is a tough job requiring difficult calls to be made on imperfect information — and one Anna Bligh is all too familiar with.

Bligh was Queensland premier at the time of the 2010-11 Brisbane floods.

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“Some of the things we had to decide during those floods that never got a lot of airplay,” she recently told a Trans-Tasman Business Circle event.

“We had to relocate all the patients from Cairns Base Hospital when it looked like the cyclone was going to hit that hospital. That included a number of ICU patients, [including] neo-natal ICU patients.

“It’s still the largest medical evac in Australian history — and we did it all on the tarmac of Cairns airport over a 12 hour period, using military aircraft, and transporting and stabilising about 450 patients.”

The cyclone didn’t end up hitting the hospital.

“But you don’t know that when you’ve got 24 hours to make the decision”, says Bligh.

“And luckily every patient survived that evacuation. But if that hadn’t been the case, if we’d lost neo-natal patients in the transfer, and the cyclone hadn’t hit — these were really big, big calls. And literally you had an hour to make a decision, because the window was closing to get people out.”

The leadership rulebook

Leaders generally try to be consultative and collaborative, but sometimes a “command and control” approach is needed.

People also want to see leaders acting decisively in those moments of confusion. You need “that ability to be decisive, to be the one who’ll make the call, but then much more importantly, the ability to live with the consequences of the call,” she argues.

“And for everybody around you to know you’re taking responsibility for that call. They know that if it ends up being the wrong call, you’re still going to be the person who takes it on their shoulders.”

The challenge is compounded by the novel situations thrown up by crises.

“One of my favourite sayings about leadership is that ‘leadership is what you see when the rulebook runs out’,” says Bligh.

“I remember thinking, literally in the middle of it all, where is the recipe book? This was something nobody had done, not even the most experienced emergency services personnel in the country.”

It helped that by the time the floods happened, Bligh already had experience “sleeping in evacuation centres with the police commissioner, the head of emergency services”. This meant the leadership team had become “quite close knit” and the premier knew she “could absolutely have confidence” in them.

Preparation for what comes after the peak of the crisis is also important.

“Thinking about what is this going to be like tomorrow, what’s it going to be like next week? What’s likely to be unfolding in a month and beyond, and into recovery?

“Really focusing on the decisions that have to be made — sometimes every five minutes — but not losing sight of putting a team up that aren’t attached to daily tasks, and getting them thinking about what we need to be doing next week.”

Leadership training in everyday life

Even as premier, Bligh drew many lessons from her personal life.

“When you’re the mother of small children you go through extraordinarily testing times — when your children’s lives are at stake. Even things like losing them in the supermarket,” she says.

“These are moments of abject terror in which you have to be the person who calmly makes logical decisions that resolve the situation. All of those things, it’s important for people to remember we’ve all been through them. And when the big moment comes, they are there to call on, even if they happened 20 years ago.”

Bligh — who is now the CEO of the Australian Banking Association — sees little difference between the public and private sectors when it comes to leadership.

“The requirements of leadership are the requirements of leadership, whether you’re head of the school P&C or running the country,” she argues.

One big difference that marks out political leaders from both bureaucrats and business, however, is the scrutiny.

“There’s four million people who know how to do the job better than you — and they’re happy to write letters to the editor about it every day,” she says.

“It’s a great strength of our democracy, but you could easily find yourself being battered from side to side.

“… For me it was a lot of learning and then becomes a bit of an art, of being able to take the slings and arrows and not be distracted from the task at hand.”

Productivity is up

Bligh also revealed the pandemic has pushed her to work from home for the first time in her life.

“I have found a lot about it to like. There’s a level of flexibility,” she notes.

“Productivity has actually been up for my team.”

Leaders need to make sure they are thinking about the wellbeing of their team at the moment — but also should not forget their own self-care.

“When you have to make big, big decisions, if you’re not sleeping well, if you’re highly stressed”, you can’t operate properly, she argues.

Bligh recommends people take time out to do the activities that help them relax and stay sane.

“Whatever it is for you, going for a ride on your bike, playing the piano,” she says.

“You don’t know when these things start whether you’re in a two day crisis or a 20 day crisis, or in this case maybe a six month crisis.

“We’re still going to be making decisions that will impact the livelihood, the wellbeing, the happiness of Australians and their businesses, well into the end of this year. And that means looking after yourself. And I’ll be honest, [there are] some times I’ve been better at that than others.”

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