Leading in Times of Collective Trauma: The Need for Compassion

February 27, 2020

By Associate Professor Erin Smith

Leadership has been widely discussed throughout the course of the current Australian bushfire crisis.

There have been failures, with the perceived lack of leadership gaining international attention.

But there have also been acts of great leadership that often get lost among the negative discourse.  The NSW Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons has been lauded for his leadership qualities and Premier of NSW Gladys Berejiklian has been praised for demonstrating empathy throughout this particular crisis.

What can we take away from all of this discussion? Yes, there have been things that many of us may have done differently. But perhaps we need to – for our own mental health – try to look for the lessons in all of this.

Collective trauma

Collective trauma occurs when an unexpected event damages the ties that bind community members together. It’s easy to see how the current bushfires might have this effect. Not only are communities physically destroyed, but the social ties that bind them together are also damaged.Leading in Times of Collective Trauma: The Need for Compassion

This collective trauma can trickle down generations. So we as a generation, and one that is currently experiencing the hurt of a devastating collective trauma event, can make an important decision: Do we focus on the negative, or try to find the positive?

Yes, it is vitally important that lessons are learned and implemented, but we now have an opportunity to nurture and grow positive leadership values including empathy and perseverance.

Collective trauma resides in cultural rituals and artefacts, community commemorations and memorials, and family narratives. It is transmitted to younger generations through social learning and social identity.

Some of the values born through the inter-generational transmission of collective trauma are resilience, forgiveness, empathy, justice and perseverance.

Hopefully we can see these values in our future leaders who will be able to learn from these bushfires and take rich material from these lessons and transform it into something positive, productive and results-driven.

Emergent leadership during crisis

History provides us with examples of great leadership emerging in the midst of disaster. Then Mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani was widely praised for his empathetic and honest approach to leading throughout the September 11th terrorist attacks in 2001.

During the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in Canada, then Director of Public Health for Toronto, Dr Sheela Basrur was the face of calm, giving daily briefings and urging doctors to act on their knowledge instead of their fear.

The importance of compassion

Every leader is likely to face a crisis of some form. While the nature of these crises can’t always be predicted, there is something leaders can do in times of collective pain and confusion. They can help the healing process by taking actions that demonstrate compassion – thereby unleashing a compassionate response throughout the entire community.

Compassion is more than just showing empathy. Compassionate leadership involves actions, however small, intended to ease people’s pain—and that’s what inspires others into compassionate action as well.

We can all do it, the human capacity to show compassion is universal.

By unleashing compassion, leaders will not only lessen the immediate suffering of those directly affected by trauma, but also empower them to recover from future setbacks more quickly and effectively.


About the Author

Associate Professor Erin Smith is the Course Coordinator for postgraduate studies in Disaster and Emergency Response at Edith Cowan University. Erin is a member of the Board of Directors for the World Association for Disaster and Emergency Medicine where she also holds the positions of Convenor of the Psychosocial Special Interest Group and Deputy Chair of the Oceania Chapter. Erin is a member of the Editorial Boards of the journals Prehospital and Disaster Medicine and the Journal of High Threat and Austere Medicine.

An active volunteer in her community, Erin is the Well-Being Team Lead for the Australian Red Cross – Emergency Services Victoria, where she is also an emergency services responder. She is also a Committee Member of The Code 9 Foundation, a charity providing support to first responders and 000 operators who live with mental health conditions resulting from their service to the community.

Erin writes a regular column “Let’s Talk Mental Health” for the Australian Emergency Services Magazine and has also been published in The Conversation and Croakey.org. An active researcher in prehospital and disaster response, she is a member of the Research Committee of the Australasian College of Paramedicine where she is also a mentor of early-career researchers.