To most Australians, Shane Fitzsimmons is synonymous with the bushfires that marked the summer of 2019/20, the man that led the response with courage and compassion as more than 50 million acres caught ablaze, destroying thousands of homes, doing untold damage to wildlife and taking the lives of dozens.

But while we recognise his face and his steady voice, few know that a personal tragedy almost forced Fitzsimmons to walk away from the NSW Rural Fire Service, where he served as Commissioner during the ‘Black Summer’.

Shane’s father George, himself a firefighter, perished along with four National Parks and Wildlife Service officers in a hazard-reduction burn that went awry in 2000 at Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park. He was 53.

The younger Fitzsimmons, then Assistant Commissioner for Operations, says he was “shocked to the core” by his father’s death, which caused him to question why he was in the industry.

Speaking to Conexus Financial chief executive Colin Tate as part of the Redefining Leadership webinar series, Fitzsimmons said the tragedy eventually hardened his resolve to continue working in service of the community.

“I didn’t want to be an armchair critic that knows everything but is never accountable,” he said.

That accountability is central to Fitzsimmons’ capability as a leader, and is a big part of why he was named by NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian as the inaugural chief of Resiliance NSW – a new government agency focused on disaster preparedness and recovery approach – in April this year.

It’s also part of the reason he was named Australian of the Year in 2020.

Fitzsimmons recalled the brutality of the fires, when the “relentless nature of the weather cycle” pushed his team of firefighters, which included some 70,000-odd volunteers, to breaking point.

“The sustained nature of the season that went on for many months at high intensity is something we’ve never seen before,” he said. “Fires started very, very easily…”

The biggest challenge as a leader during the period, he said, was motivating exhausted people to simply keep turning up, “day after day, week after week, month after month”.

“The other leadership challenge,” he recalled, “was making decisions to save and protect as many people as possible, knowing those decisions would have profound effects on those people.”

Fitzsimmons said losing firefighters on the ground in horrific circumstances was the thing that kept him up the most at night during the “difficult, awful and challenging” time. Of the 34 people that died in the fires directly (many more were subsequently taken by inhalation-related issues), seven were frontline firefighters.

He recalled informing family members that two firefighters died after their vehicle was hit by a burned and fallen tree. “It was without a doubt in my mind the most difficult thing as a leader and as a Commissioner that I’ve ever done,” he said. “The 19th of December is a day and a memory that is etched in my mind forever.”

It is carrying those responsibilities, however, that has shaped Fitzsimmons into the leader he is today. His conversation with Tate – who has hosted similarly intimate conversations with David GonskiKerry Kennedy and AIA Australia’s Damien Mu – reveals a man who is comfortable at the tip of the spear, leading from the front and accepting everything that comes with it.

“I’ve always been a strong believer that leadership presence is absolutely important and fundamental in any organisation, but leadership presence in times of crisis is absolutely fundamental,” he said. “When things are going horribly wrong you need to be present even more.”

The events of last summer have also firmed his resolve to push the agenda on environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) issues. The biggest hurdle, he reckons, is staging “calm and intelligent discourse”, and trying to “ameliorate the damage to our environment” by figuring the right policy into business cases.

As ever, he is direct and honest in his appraisal of the roadblocks.

“We end of getting dominated by crazies at one end of the spectrum and morons at the other end of the spectrum,” he said.

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