David and Bev Winter run the Breadstreet bakery in Mont Albert in the outer suburbs of Melbourne. During 2020 they organised 130 volunteers from their local community to prepare and deliver close to 10,000 meals to locals in need. Often, delivery rounds took hours longer than planned because for many people their meal delivery was their only social interaction – one they looked forward to and depended on. Facing initial setbacks from their local council and Rotary Club, David and Bev persisted, investing $90,000 of their own money to feed people while providing a crucial sense of social connection and belonging across their local area.
David and Bev’s story is just one of many examples of leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s an inspiring tale that shows the type of generous and collective spirit that we know exists across the nation. From environmental disasters like the 2019-20 bushfires through to the economic and social impacts of COVID-19, people look for ways to connect with and support those around them.
However, the Winter’s leadership also raises serious questions about our capacity as a society. Where were the government and civil society organisations who we fund and elect to support people in times of crisis? Who across Australia needed help during COVID-19 but didn’t receive it? Do those entrusted with leadership positions have the skills and capabilities they need to lead?
These are the kinds of questions that Strengthening Australian Civil Society is here to ask.
Through a number of workshops, dozens of interviews, as well as collecting reports, stories and other writings from around the world, we are trying to understand the role of leadership, community connection, systems and networks and influence and advocacy in the way that civil society has attempted to meet the needs of people and communities.
Our research team is in the process of producing a series of discussion papers and conversation kits based on what we’ve heard so far, to help deepen Australian civil society’s collective processes of reflection and adaptation.
For now, we wanted to share four quick observations that are emerging about leadership:
- Leadership is a practice, not a position: Having a leadership position doesn’t make someone a leader. Leaders are always embedded in a community and have been entrusted with the responsibility and authorisation to lead. This is similar to Aboriginal notions of autonomy and collective responsibility, where “selfhood springs from and is bound up with Country”. The confusion between the practice of leadership and people in leadership positions means that community-level leadership can sometimes go unrecognised or unacknowledged.
- Effective leadership involves both decentralising and wielding power: Leaders need to balance an ever-present tension between collaboration and decisiveness. Horizontal practices like collaborative decision-making, supporting leadership development in others and stepping away from making decisions create the legitimacy for more vertical practices, like making quick or unilateral decisions and taking risks in a crisis
- Leadership emerges and is developed both formally and informally: Formal processes like leadership programs and fellowships can help develop the skills that leaders need – and are well utilised by the government and corporate sectors. Leadership is also experiential, with important leadership development happening informally around cups of coffee, sitting with and listening to others, as well as through conscious practices like debriefing, sharing and yarning.
- Crises creates a different type of leadership: When crises like the bushfires or COVID-19 emerge, people look to those in leadership positions for clear communication, confidence and decisiveness. People don’t expect leaders to have all the answers, but they do respect leaders who are honest, open and who take responsibility for their actions. Crises also create opportunities for new leaders (like David and Bev Winter) to emerge.
Our team will continue exploring and sharing stories and ideas related to leadership and civil society over the coming months, so make sure you have signed up to receive updates when we release them.
At its heart, Strengthening Australian Civil Society is an ongoing conversation, a meeting place for people and organisations to share ideas, find common purpose and generate new relationships for change.
If reading this short piece has provoked thoughts and ideas on leadership or another aspect of civil society, please get in touch and share where you’re at.
 Morgan Brigg and Mary Graham (2020), The relevance of Aboriginal political concepts: Autonomous selfhood