When crisis strikes: how leaders can flounder in critical moments

Whether it’s a bushfire, a flood, a data breach or a network shutdown, Australia's political leaders and biggest companies don’t have a great track record when disaster strikes.

Communications, Government, Anthony Albanese, Crisis Communications, Data breach

Dan Wilkie 15 Dec 2023
3 mins

Whether it’s a bushfire, a flood, a data breach or a network shutdown, Australia’s political leaders and biggest companies don’t have a great track record when disaster strikes.

Time after time, those leading modern government, business and cultural organisations flounder precisely when clear-eyed strategies should activate. And even with a series of high-profile failures to learn from, crisis preparedness still lags and warnings go unheeded.

But communities ravaged by avoidable disasters or who have lost critical services have no patience for easy leadership theatre.

As the lucky country’s good fortune recedes amid climate consequence, cyber-risk and global health threats, Australia desperately needs its directors to direct and leaders to lead, with courage, clarity and compassion.

A short history of modern crises proves the point.

Scott Morrison and bush fires — the leader who wasn’t there

As the horrific 2019-2020 Australian bushfires raged ceaselessly, desperation mounted for immediate and systematic action. But then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison remained eerily absent, his office repeatedly refusing to disclose his location during urgent devastation.  

When the public discovered a Hawaiian vacation kept him shamefully distanced from the emergency, outrage erupted. Returning reluctantly mid-crisis, a defining disconnect emerged between Morrison’s superficial reassurances and surging national anger.  

Photo opportunities at the fire front struck a disingenuous note, evoking criticism of leadership rooted in performative publicity above genuine responsibility. Even Morrison’s notionally unifying ‘quiet Australians’ was seen as alienating those devastated by the disaster.

Overall, most analysts condemned Morrison for his ‘not my job’ evasion of accountability, which prioritised political reputation over compassionate delivery. His arms-length approach allowed room for entrenched issues to take centre stage: a lack of preparedness, underfunded resources and dismissal of scientific expertise.

The lesson from those days is that as climate change escalates such disasters, leaders have to be present rather than vanishing from the scene.  

Anthony Albanese and floods — repeating old mistakes

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese brought more visible leadership attending flood-stricken regions across NSW, Victoria Queensland in person early during the emergency that swept through the three states in October 2022. But the same reactive approach to managing crisis persisted.

Studies already demonstrate worsening floods directly correlating with emissions-driven temperature rises. Yet the Albanese government’s response did not seem to match the increasing annual incidence of major disasters.

While Albanese famously campaigned on a promise to “end the climate wars”, his government’s spending priorities don’t seem to match the rhetoric. Fossil fuel subsidies over the forward estimates in the 2022-23 Federal Budget will cost the government 14 times more than the amount invested in the Australian Disaster Ready Fund.

The lesson on this front is slightly more nuanced. It is understandable that leaders want to be cautious in their climate rhetoric to avoid political division but avoiding the reality misses bringing the audience along the need for a daring transformation in the way we reduce the risk of climate-related disaster.  

Optus in denial — when saving face matters more

Allowing one crisis to be poorly managed sets you up for disaster when a second strikes and this has been seen with the cyber challenges faced by Optus.

The high-profile 2022 Optus data breach illustrated that organisational self-preservation continues to dominate executive reactions.

With personal information of up to nine million customers compromised, Optus CEO Kelly Bayer Rosmarin immediately took fire for focusing PR on corporate financial impacts.

Questioned on cyber safeguards before Parliament, Ms Bayer Rosmarin reflexively passed responsibility to technical staff, rather than showing leadership accountability. Swift turnover of three Optus executives during the incident also signalled avoidance confronting culpability.

Continued insistence by Ms Bayer Rosmarin that Optus held no liability for criminals accessing leaked data further damaged public trust in the nation’s number two telco.

A year later, with customers still smarting, Optus’ failures in communication were again laid bare in November, when a network failure of staggering scale left over 10 million customers – nearly half Australia’s population – disconnected from phone and internet services. As transport systems, hospitals and business payments ground to a halt lacking connectivity, Optus floundered for answers, struggling to explain the shutdown’s root cause. 

The imperative of crisis leadership

No one wants or expects a crisis, which is precisely why they happen. Turning points for Australia are often shaped by short-sighted decisions – under preparedness, under resourcing, and underestimating risk. It’s not surprising, therefore, that events quickly outpace leaders who are reactive, flat-footed or lack the crisis leadership capabilities needed to restore order.

No leader should now reasonably deny climate consequences, cyberattacks, the risk of threats to health and safety or the exposure of communities to disaster. If we want to move beyond performative leadership, you need to grapple with real and escalating threats and be ready to front up about how you and your organisation will change.

It is why the key lesson above all others is to prepare.

Only by developing proactive crisis capabilities, through taking responsibility and by acting with empathy and compassion, can leaders hope to survive a crisis when the next firestorm strikes.

Dan Wilkie More from author

Dan is an accomplished journalist, editor and content creator with more than 12 years of experience in financial media.

In addition to holding several senior roles in the Business News editorial team, Dan was responsible for launching Australia China Business Review and was most recently editor-in-chief at Australian Property Investor.

Dan has a strong eye for detail and an exceptional ability to succinctly and accurately craft high-quality content tailored for a client’s needs across a wide range of industries.

Outside of work, Dan is an island enthusiast with a penchant for the South Pacific, and in the cooler months can often be found roaming the forests of Jarrahdale with his young family.

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