Leadership when the well is dry

For individuals and communities to survive a drought ... people need to reach out

“OF DROUGHTS and flooding rains” … too right Dorothea Mackellar, and for many families across Queensland and northern NSW (and for that matter California) it’s the dry and the accompanying ‘black dog’ that threaten.

I’ll spare readers the conjecture around climate - it’s bloody dry up there, has been for years. It’s happened before and will happen again, but what I’m most interested in is the challenge for leaders in dealing with it.

In this I invite you to think beyond the usual suspects -respective Ministers for agriculture/primary industries, farm sector leaders and the banks - to those at the coalface including those in drought, and those in their communities leading at all levels.

Firstly let’s not kid ourselves that there are any easy answers to the myriad of impacts brought about by drought. At the extremes of the debate, it’s either a matter of cutting any form of support, or wiping the slate clean and forgiving the entire farm debt burden. If either of these options were feasible then we would have arrived there by now.

While it makes sense to do more to help people prepare for drought, the best preparation won’t put food on the table if conditions persist.

So what does this mean for leaders in these communities, industries and for governments?

I will leave the policy debate for those engaged in it. I will focus on two things – the need to better connect local drought leadership success stories and community-driven solutions with broader policy, and the need to sustain mental health services even in the toughest budget conditions.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the worst time you could try to lift yourself above the situation in front of you is when you are in drought. There’s some truth in this, so it’s the responsibility of leaders at all levels not to be resigned to shuffling nervously between droughts and believing the solutions of today will work tomorrow.

Clearly some people are acting now. There are many in drought who have done all they can to prepare and survive so their business and family can recover and thrive on the other side.

These ‘local’ leaders should not only be applauded and supported, lessons should be learned from their ingenuity in terms of community solutions and policy decisions.

I see leadership at all levels, and of every scale in my role. Townsville-based Sue Gorton is a current participant on a Foundation program, and she recently organised the bottling and labelling of almost a hundred jars of face cream, gifted to the Mt Isa School of the Air community to present to their mothers on Mothers’ Day - a tiny luxury among the many that vanish from the shopping lists of families in drought.

An alumni in Tamworth, Jennifer Jeffrey, works as a Drought Co-ordinator for North West, Central West and Far West NSW. She is one of five co-ordinators employed by the Department of Human Services, but she can only do this work because she knows firsthand the hardships drought can bring to farming families and communities.

Her region spans 11 drought declared local government areas from Tamworth to Broken Hill. She does her best to ensure social support services for farming families and their communities are co-ordinated and that support reaches those who need it. She builds links between government and non-government services within communities, because collaboration yields better outcomes.

From the cosmetic (literally) to the much larger battle to ensure drought-stricken communities are supported, there are many ways leaders make a positive impact.

And to support the case that leadership can occur at all levels, ABC Landline’s February story, Tears From the Sky shows how 10-year-old Brisbane school student Ellen Gett’s video about her grandfather’s drought-plagued property travelled far beyond her city classroom. It is a prime illustration that everyone has a voice to lead with.

It is now well recognised that for individuals and communities to survive a drought, and thrive at the other end, people need to reach out. We also know that many tragically do not.

So what can be done to help?

Firstly ensure that funding for these services survives between droughts and that there is greater connection between mental health programs and local community ideas and approaches.

For instance, in the case of those working in mental health (and importantly those who fund it), this could be more about the quality of multiple-year programs lifting mental health awareness as well as help and self-help strategies, than deploying an army of mental health workers into a drought.

Taking the ‘tough’ decision is harder than it looks. In reading the many articles and opinion pieces on the Californian drought I see much of the same language we see here: leaders need to ‘step up’, take the ‘tough call’.

In my experience what that really means is either pandering to self-interest or making a call that may polarise or alienate. The far tougher call is to incorporate and challenge diverse views in arriving at a decision, whether that be at a community, industry or government level. Pragmatism should not be confused with leaders failing to explore all options.

After all, when it comes to drought, the toughest decisions are ultimately made by those on the frontline.

Matt Linnegar

Matt Linnegar

is the chief executive of the Australian Rural leadership Foundation
Twitter: @mattlinnegar
Date: Newest first | Oldest first


Steve Cox
4/06/2015 8:31:41 PM

Well it is fine and good to be just another talking head. You people are the problem not the solution. Greedy grasping fools be they big bank CEOs, owners of multinationals with not a skerrick of long term vision and don't start me on bloody politicians, none of whom are smart enough to see when you make everyone prosperous everyone wins, but when you screw another ultimately you end up screwing yourselves. Farmers who once earned a decent living could afford to make it through the tough times, you have allowed them to be screwed over at best and this is the result, your future too, Matt.
Chick Olsson
1/06/2015 8:25:28 AM

Lots of words here Mat, as produced many times before. What is your simplest solution to this continuous issue? Encourage Tony to bring down water from the North maybe??
Rob Moore
1/06/2015 6:39:00 AM

Matt - this is all well and good BUT you were in a "leadership " role in Sept 2013 when I contacted NFF- you and Maher. Sheep&cattle prices ATROCIOUS! You and your members dismissed my PPP plan"out of hand"- none of you even read it. Getting sponsership from corps like coles/woolies, banks would have had some bearing on this no doubt.You have moved on to another spruiking role BUT I plug on with the NUTS and BOLTS cure that will fix almost all of the woes that you talk about. Do you see a little irony here?
Leading questionsAustralian Rural Leadership Foundation CEO Matt Linnegar looks at the issues impacting the ag sector.


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