Guest blog: What does courageous leadership mean to me?

7 November 2022

Professor Lucy Easthope is a passionate and thought-provoking voice in emergency planning. Her book When The Dust Settles is a Sunday Times bestseller. 

We are delighted that she is the keynote speaker at this year’s ACF conference on 15 November. Here she gives a taste of some of her ideas about courage, leadership and the decade ahead.

What is courageous leadership?
“To me, courageous leadership is actually good decision-making before the worst happens. Courageous leaders are not necessarily those making quick decisions in disaster situations but those thinking ahead to what might happen. The danger is trundling along in the good times and then being unprepared when an emergency happens.

“Bravery is to look beyond the immediate and say ‘No’ when you need to. That can be uncomfortable, especially when you’re expecting to be challenged in a meeting or there are power dynamics at play.

“I talk in my book about the ‘wildcard’ role within high performing teams. That there has to be a person in the team being the dissenting voice, suggesting ‘what if’ ideas Courageous leadership is also about building high performing teams that include a mixture of people with different perspectives.

“And you have to be really informed. I try and read from a very broad perspective: that could be a Grazia magazine article, academic and newspaper articles, scanning a mix  of voices on social media alongside going to varied seminars and events. 

Were there lessons that stuck out for you from the pandemic?
“When the pandemic happened, it was clear that some organisations hadn’t thought enough about what that would mean for business continuity in the short and long term. Some people talked to me about resuming business as usual after a few months. 

“In emergency planning, we’re always in that space thinking about what is the “least worst” option, which can sometimes be a “hugely controversial” space too. You have to be a great forecaster.

“Sadly, the economic sting in the tail of this pandemic may be brutal for some organisations. There will be a rationalisation, some may not make it.

“I also really hope that we can learn that good intentions are not always good enough. Community action was a huge and positive thing but the reality is that voluntary action can be unsustainable, and it also doesn’t replace the need for fit for purpose systems. People are often motivated to do more and give more in the initial phases of an emergency and, whilst it’s great to harness that energy and goodwill, an initial response might have created dependencies that then leave people vulnerable to later abandonment if the voluntary help tapers away.

"You can be viewed as very cynical if you challenge the idea that all help is good but courageous leadership means addressing ways you can reduce inequalities longer term.

What message would you give to foundation and trust leaders in 2032, a decade from now?
“In 2032, we’ll still be coming out of tumultuous times and organisations that have not innovated may have dried up. But I’d hope that all organisations would be touched by climate awareness and have learned to translate that into equitable disaster readiness.

"And that there would be a redefined space of the statutory role in society, alongside that of civil society. Also, that we in the UK would be better about recognising our own symptoms of burnout and emotional well-being.”

Who has inspired you and what books, resources would you recommend reading?
Collective Conviction by Anne Eyre and Pam Dix of Disaster Action
Catastrophe and Systemic Change by Gill Kernick
I’ve learnt a lot from the Elizabeth and Jolie in New Zealand who set up up  Hummingly and have been disaster recovery pioneers. They are the authors of the New Zealand Red Cross Recovery guidance which I carry with me every day
I would also say I like James O’Brien’s book How Not to be Wrong: the art of changing your mind.