Finding opportunities for compassion

Over the past 33 years, having personally experienced the physical, emotional and psychological impacts of severe to catastrophic natural hazard events as well as witnessing these impacts on those who directly lost loved ones or property; those indirectly impacted; those called to respond, lead and manage; those called upon to report, and those who bore witness either first hand or through the many forms of media that exist within society, I came to understand that there was not a person anywhere who was not in some way affected by these events.


Most if not all of the people that I have had the privilege to work for, with or serve were all primarily motivated to do the very best they could within the limits of their internal and external resources whilst facing adversity.  When I genuinely came to understand that, I understood the futility of blame, and if the finger of blame was to be turned upon itself, there needed to be something more beneficial that could replace it. That is when I came to understand the opportunity for compassion.

Putting blame aside

Throughout my career I have witnessed and experienced suffering. Having attended many emergency incidents where someone had arisen that morning with a rightful and reasonable expectation of coming home that night to their loved ones, but did not due to a set of unforeseen and tragic circumstances that would see them pass away, helped to teach me the value of life, and perhaps more importantly, its uncertainty and unpredictability.

Having personally suffered the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) following the 1994 bushfires and its painful and long-term consequences on my personal life, helped me understand the suffering that so many police, fire and emergency services personnel and many others experienced during their salaried or volunteer careers simply by fulfilling their commitments to others or protecting their own families and livelihoods.

Having comforted residents who had lost their homes and a life time of possessions, with their memories and the clothes they were wearing the only evidence left of their former life, and having experienced substantial loss in my own life, helped teach me how painful loss could be and how impermanent everything was that existed outside of ourselves.

In all those circumstances, was blame ever useful? Simply put, no. But these experiences taught me many things, including the power of compassion – the capacity to put myself genuinely in the shoes of the other person, to understand their emotional pain and trauma, and the inner strength to be with them and to offer whatever words of comfort they needed to hear, or to do whatever was needed at the time. In short, the capacity to rise above my own internal suffering, genuinely put someone else’s needs before my own, and do everything I could do to take away their suffering.

Compassion in the face of disaster

I have said numerous times that all disasters present the opportunity for society to show a level of compassion towards each other that everyday life does not yet allow. I have had the privilege many times in my career to witness numerous acts of extraordinary compassion firsthand, seeing both volunteer and salaried fire fighters continue to fight fires and save lives and property whilst learning that their own properties had been destroyed; neighbours lending a hand to others despite their own substantial property losses, and the mud army in Queensland mobilising to provide significant assistance to those who had lost property as a result of extensive flooding to name a few.

Such acts of compassion have, for the most part, galvanised the community, forged new relationships (or repaired previously dysfunctional ones) and eased the emotional burden of those who suffered loss. The absence of compassion however, did the exact opposite.

Leading with humility

As leaders, we have sometimes mistaken compassion for weakness. We have tended to remain clinical and objective in our comments and observations about the impacts of disasters. We have also from time to time held the high moral ground of saying, or at least implying ‘we told you so’, allowing our arrogance and ignorance to pervade.

Whilst remaining clinical and objective has its place in management, especially when there is a need to focus on the task at hand and attempt to deal with the myriad complexity of the unfolding situation, it is not helpful to maintain that approach once the full extent of the impact emerges and people’s emotional reactions begin to surface.

The effect of remaining clinical and objective and being perceived to take the high moral ground negates our ability to connect with the very people that we have committed to serve. It also has the effect of negating our ability to show our own vulnerability. We have a point of limitation, and therefore we must have vulnerability, and it is our vulnerability that helps establish connection between us and the people we serve.

It shows that we are human. Just like those we are committed to protecting, we have our limits and we are not unaffected by the emotional impacts that disasters impose. But to admit vulnerability also requires humility.

The power of human connection

True humility is releasing the need to have to win; to have the last word, and to have to always have our insecurities reinforced with endless support and acknowledgement. Humility is the ability to help someone who has aggrieved us, to say we are sorry, and not wait years for the other person to apologise before we speak to them.

Humility allows us to surrender our own fixed view of the world and presents the opportunity to expand our thinking, and genuinely hear the contributions and suggestions made by others, as well as grant ourselves and each other permission to say, ‘we do not know but we will find out’. It assists us in using our collective imaginations to bring to mind things that are not present to our senses; creativity to develop original ideas that have value, and innovation to put new ideas into practice. It opens up the capacity for receiving knowledge from others and helps dispel our ignorance.

Unless we give something of ourselves, if we do not reveal our humanness, if we cannot ‘let people in’ then we cannot establish a relationship with them, and a relationship is what the vast majority of people that we aim to protect want in leadership. They want to know the real you. Not the image, not the perception, and not the spin.

Displaying uncontrolled emotions during an operation is not helpful and does tend to imply weakness or lack of competence however, showing genuine emotion through reflection and contemplation of the impacts that disasters have on us and our fellow human beings is not weakness but strength.

It takes great inner strength to firstly acknowledge and then control and express one’s own emotions whilst being able to relate to the emotional distress of another human being, and to put aside one’s needs to assist someone else. But the rewards are significant.

I genuinely believe that the power of connection, the ability to relate, the capacity to be there for someone else, the humility to admit mistakes and to show vulnerability, and the grace to acknowledge, without judgement, the emotional reactions of all of those impacted, provides the basis for our compassion which in turn assists to protect us from the alternative pathway of blaming each other and the spiralling effects that it causes. It also provides us, at least in part, with the opportunity to maintain the trust and confidence of those we serve in the face of overwhelming adversity.

Of course, our competencies, leadership ability, capacity to communicate effectively, and our ability to efficiently and effectively manage are also on display and are equally important in maintaining trust and confidence.

The greatest success measure of disaster

For many years, to define success, we have resorted to a rational approach to the outcomes of disasters. We have tried to either define success or defend criticism by quoting statistics on relative low levels of losses or significant deployment of resources or listing the many activities undertaken prior to, and during the event for instance. However, these have generally had little effect on how people have felt about the disaster. Why? In my view, disasters are more a matter of the ‘heart’ than the ‘head’. The rational view of the world is important, but so is the emotional view.

Astute leaders understand this. They have both the intellectual and the emotional intelligence to display confidence and competence as well as making a personal connection with those they have been called upon to lead, irrespective of the circumstances. You will never be remembered for all of the statistics you quote, but you will always be remembered for your capacity to show genuine compassion towards others even in the face of the direst of circumstances.

In fact, I would argue that if “securing and maintaining the trust and confidence of our communities” is the greatest success measure of a disaster, then “removing, reducing or minimising the suffering of our communities through compassionate motivation” must be our greatest mission.