The last 12 months have been immensely challenging for all Australians. LSJ looks beyond the legal profession to unearth valuable leadership lessons from those shining through the mire.
SHANE FITZSIMMONS: Commissioner of Resilience NSW, former NSW RFS Commissioner, volunteer, dad.
Just offshore from the quaint NSW coastal town of Bermagui, slapped by tides and weather, stands an iconic rock formation. Dark scythes of sediment jut out from the sandy ocean floor, resolutely holding ground as waves and time wash over it.
Locals know it as Camel Rock. Its 400-million-year-old silhouette gaped through orange skies during the “Black Summer” bushfires of 2019/2020, when the skies of Bermagui raged red to black in an apocalyptic haze. Homes burned all around it. The rock stood firm.
Out of the darkness of that summer, a second rock emerged for the communities of the NSW south coast. Then-NSW Rural Fire Services (RFS) Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons may be slightly softer in appearance but similarly camel-like in his steadfastness. Plus, in a few short months, he endured possibly an equal amount of weathering.
“The most unprecedented, damaging destructive forces we’ve ever experienced,” is how Fitzsimmons describes the bushfires to LSJ.
“We’ve never seen a loss of life, we’ve never seen a damage and destruction, of the scale that we saw. Twenty six lives were lost over that period, including seven volunteers. Lives changed forever. Families lost loved ones, made the ultimate sacrifice.”
Speaking from the climate-controlled stillness of the Law Society’s Sydney office building in early 2021, seemingly a world away from that chaotic summer, Fitzsimmons makes it clear he is well acquainted with sacrifice. He has served in the RFS since he was a teenager and dedicated 35 years of his life to it. At 19, he was the youngest-ever member of the Duffy’s Forest Brigade to be elected captain. When he was 31, Fitzsimmons’ father, George, made the ultimate sacrifice.
George was carrying out maintenance work on fire trails in Mount Kuringai, in Sydney’s north, when his radio cut off. Word got out to Fitzsimmons, who was now an assistant commissioner, that a backburning fire was out of control and there were injuries involved. His father died alongside two other volunteers. A fourth man died in hospital later.
“I still carry the emotional scars of that day,” admits Fitzsimmons. “At the time, I genuinely thought about giving it all away and doing something else. But that was only a momentary contemplation. What I ended saying to myself was … the only way you can be part of the solution is to be part of the team. I strengthened my resolve to make sure that whatever I did would be focused on improving the safety, the operations and the supports for the men and women, the frontline. And I’ve sought to pursue that ever since.”
As we bump elbows to meet in LSJ’s COVID-safe workplace – Fitzsimmons will always be a stickler for his Premier’s rules – it strikes me he is shorter in person than I expected. Waist-up television framing has never given away his height. He commands the presence of a much larger man.
This unassuming Aussie bloke became a giant in the public eye from late 2019 – appearing in lounge rooms, pubs, waiting rooms and kitchens across the state every day for almost two months via daily televised press conferences. Hundreds of thousands tuned in as he rallied NSW citizens against the first of many unprecedented challenges in 2020. The media torrent exposed every emotion. But rather than appearing weak – his eyes reddened by tears and lack of sleep – Fitzsimmons’ clear, measured instructions and obvious compassion became a beacon of hope and strength for NSW.
“A leader’s authenticity is critical,” Fitsimmons tells LSJ.
“That comes down to the individual: don’t pretend to be someone you’re not, don’t be a poser. And be really clear about what the situation is, particularly during times of uncertainty. Be really open and honest about the predicament you’re in and what the situation or circumstances are that everybody is dealing with. The second element is humility, and empathy.”
The success of Fitzsimmons’ media strategy was immediately obvious. Daily press conferences soon became the go-to method for Australia’s leaders to communicate through later crisis periods of 2020. NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, who stood beside Fitzsimmons during most media appearances through the bushfires, formed a habit of delivering 8am media addresses through the peak of COVID-19. Victorians, later that year, held their breath as the omnipresent North Face jacket of Premier Daniel Andrews fronted a lectern at 11am each day during Australia’s second wave.
Fitzsimmons was dubbed the “nation’s father” for his decisive yet compassionate handling of the bushfire crisis. The title became official when he was named Father of the Year by the Shepherd Centre in April 2020. It was an award that may have initially stumped his two teenage daughters and wife Lisa, he admits. Lisa also volunteers with the RFS and the two began dating in their 20s when Fitzsimmons scored her number over the intercom after many months of persistence (Lisa had flatly refused to date a firefighter before that, due to the large amount of time they spend away from home and risking their lives).
“A number of my mates who aren’t very kind or polite asked, ‘How on earth do you receive an award like that when you haven’t even seen your family in the last five or six months?’” Fitzsimmons laughs. He explains that it was “humbling” nonetheless.
“No matter what role I am in at work, I return home and I’m the boss of nothing – apart from maybe stacking and loading the dishwasher. We’re very grounded at home. We’ve always focused on quality time over quantity; being part of a volunteer organisation has always meant that’s just the way you do it.”
Looking back at the 2019/2020 summer, the only regret Fitzsimmons has is that modern, high-definition broadcasting leaves little to the imagination when a talking head hasn’t slept. Those bags under his eyes? He was surviving on little more than four hours sleep each night. There were plenty of occasions “when the worst tragedies happened” that he simply didn’t – or couldn’t – sleep.
But even while Mother Nature wreaked havoc, Fitzsimmons says the worst times brought out the best in his colleagues and fellow Australians. It’s a lesson he brings into his new role as Commissioner of Resilience NSW – a new agency Premier Berejiklian formed in the wake of the fires to assist communities in their recovery from all kinds of disasters.
“Up against such adversity, such loss, what really will be etched in my mind forever is this remarkable sense of community, this Aussie spirit, this humanity that came together in spades, and really outshone the adversity that people were experiencing,” Fitzsimmons says.
“As I travel around in my role with Resilience NSW, going into community groups, to local public schools, and spending time with the kids and the teachers and the mums and dads and carers, the thing that comes up over and over again are three phrases: I am not alone. You are not alone. And we are not alone.
“For me, it doesn’t matter who you are at whatever level of an organisation you’re at, and the role you’ve got. We’ve all got leadership responsibilities, and we’ve all got to look out for each other.”