Friends and colleagues, you probably wonder if I’ve taken leave from my senses for the last few weeks. Not those of you dealing with the day to day of the fire emergencies across Australia: I hope you’re ignoring me and getting on with the practical things and staying safe.
First, I am not living in an area directly impacted by anything other than some smoke and stories from people I know who know people who have had losses – of property, of animals, and in one case, their neighbour’s life. I am this writing from a place of privilege and fortune and as I do my thoughts are with each community affected, those whose losses are real and painful, and with those working to help others in every capacity.
Where possible, with colleagues, friends and family spread wide, I am attempting to amplify useful information, knowing that at times like this, people directly impacted are listening to their local news, their local authorities, the RFS or CFA or CFS according to state:
And I am following the best advice on how to practically help recovery efforts, primarily through cash donation and legitimate fundraising efforts: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-01-01/bushfire-relief:-how-you-can-help-frontline-services/
I have spent a lot of my downtime on social media being critical of, sarcastic about, and commenting on the performance of the PM during crisis. I’m not equipped to be a politician. I know my limitations.
So why am I, a communication professional and writer, spending time piling on to the criticism directed to the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison? How does me shitposting and criticising and sharing critiques actually helping while people are still in response mode, wile flames move in, while Defence Force evacuations are occurring in communities that are in states of emergency?
So what gives me cause to be so overtly critical? What gives me the right to mock #scottyfrommarketing and to pile on with the other critics? In my communication career, I’ve spent a lot of years helping organisations – employees and leaders, recover from bad leadership. Through communication, reputation and culture work, I have seen the residual impact on teams, divisions, departments and whole businesses when leadership has turned toxic.
Much of my communication career has been focussed on trying to help leaders and managers cut the bullshit and communicate in honest, authentic and impactful ways with the people in their organisations. Through listening, through self-awareness, through taking a constructive and humanistic approach. As a certified communication management professional, I am bound by a global standard that includes ethics and truthfulness in communication practice.
And I’ve seen the damage that non-consultative, directive, ego-driven leaders who are working out their own psychological issues in a way that impacts dozens or hundreds or thousands of employees.
I’m self-aware enough to know I do not have the disposition, the diplomacy, or the skill to be a politician. But I do know what genuine leadership looks like. What we are seeing from ScoMo to all appearances is a fabrication.
If during his time as a marketer, Scotty was doing his job, he would have a strong awareness of sentiment. He recently claimed he’s not going to make policy decisions on the back of what people have to say on Twitter. But you can guarantee his team is using every social media analytical tool at their disposal to understand how the tide is turning. At the moment, the responses are crude and rudimentary: attempting to shift the rhetoric and messaging without having to concede policy shifts from the entrenched party positions on coal, climate, cost-shifting emergency response from Federal to State jurisdiction.
And that’s why I am using the critical hashtags and tagging both the Facebook and Twitter accounts for the PM. He shattered his own illusion of not being swayed by public opinion when he chimed in about the firefighter who said ‘he’s not my PM’ being taken out of context. That was enough for him to jump on Twitter to tell his side of the story. It also showed that the messages are getting through from every Quiet Australian who has decided this is not the time to be quiet. Perhaps at some point, through an FOI request, or during a Royal Commission or some other form of inquiry into the responses to this catastrophic season, or when this year’s Cabinet papers are released in 20 years, the effort to monitor and to willfully ignore the views of Australians will be apparent.
The sentiment is shifting. Other conservatives are finding these positions untenable and unsustainable. When the FT is calling for your head, the markets listen. I’ve said elsewhere in response to the Machinery of Government changes #scottyfrommarketing rushed through in order to beat the Thodey report into the public service that if he was the CEO of a listed company, Morrison’s decision-making would be called into question.
That was prior to the even more ramshackle and reputationally destructive performance of the last few weeks. Any commercial Board would be assembling their Risk committee and making serious deliberations about the viability of the CEO. Australia deserves better, and despite the banal reassurances of our Chief Marketing Officer, Australia can more than one conversation at a time. Now is not the time for the people in response and recovery mode to be focussed on ineffective leadership but on the survival tasks at hand. But that is no reason for the rest of us, from our privileged positions of safety to not demand more of the leaders who are failing their constituents.
Okay, now I am ranting. Back to leadership skills. Even the most sociopathic leaders can in the right circumstances be swayed by the things that their minders won’t say to them.
“When you say ‘we’ all the time, you come across as not taking responsibility”
“You can’t talk your way out of this, you need to show some humility”
“I know you think you are demonstrating strength, but unless you can do it without that grin, you just look smugger”
“You might be hard-wired to deflect and not say ‘I don’t know’ but every time you run the same key message past people without answering the question – even if the answer is ‘you don’t know’, you’re damaging your credibility further.”
“People hate you right now and that’s not some kind of test of wills… unless you rapidly learn to genuinely listen, and not just fake it, you’re going to destroy not only your credibility but also that of the leadership team…”
“You need to understand it’s not about you and what you want to say”
They are paraphrased examples of real feedback that has been impactful with managers and executives in the public and private sector, giving them a moment when they have realised their impact isn’t what they hope it to be.
Scotty would like us to think he doesn’t know – or that he knows best – but let’s make sure he gets some feedback:
The stories of those with the experience at the front need to be heard – not just nodded at but heard by those in power. The stories of kids who have been afraid of the smoke, or who don’t understand why other people are frightened should move compassionate, capable people. There is wisdom and hope and the real community spirit in those stories.
We deserve leaders who are capable of paying attention to those stories and adapting instead of pushing their own narrative.
Disclosure: I have worked as a communication consultant for a number of state and federal government departments and agencies. I am not a member of any political party.