Shane Fitzsimmons – leading authentically


Shane Fitzsimmons – leading authentically

February 20, 2020

With his compassionate and level-headed leadership, Macquarie alumnus and RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons (MMgmt 2019) embodies what we need from those at the forefront of our most challenging situations. We uncover how he captivated the nation during one of Australia’s worst bushfire seasons on record.

Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons isn’t one to ask of others what he isn’t prepared to do himself. And so it was as part of a focus on evolving, developing and strengthening the learnings of the NSW Rural Fire Service as a whole that Commissioner Fitzsimmons, or Shane as he introduces himself, decided to undertake a Masters of Management (MMgmt) at Macquarie University.

Naturally, as commissioner of a vital state emergency service, flexibility was always going to be a key requirement of any studies he undertook – something he felt Macquarie University genuinely provided. It allowed him to balance the demands of his career while sharpening his focus on the organisation’s needs, directions and, above all, people.

For it seems that, for Shane, it all comes back to people. ‘It was inspiring to see the strength of experience and background in both the lecturers and those I was studying with.

‘When you’re focused on your own organisation and career every day, it is very enlightening and insightful to step out of that environment and be surrounded by such a diverse group of people sharing their knowledge and investing in their personal and professional development.’

Indeed, Shane has maintained a connection with his lecturers and fellow classmates, many of whom have been in touch over the most recent bush fire season to show their support. ‘A very strong, supportive network was forged during my studies, and has continued,’ he says warmly.

As he talks, one of the busiest public servants in the state is completely focused on our conversation. Unaffected and approachable, he is both calm and thoughtful. Very much like he has been on our screens for the past few months.

In fact, he is exactly the same – and that’s the key. What you see is what you get. There is a congruency in his character, and I sense the way Shane interacts with others is not merely a management style he has picked up or learned. There is a straightforward genuineness about him that is not easily emulated, and I wonder where this stems from.

And so, I ask about his influences in terms of leadership. Ever humble, Shane credits the service he has dedicated his life to for moulding him – an organisation that comprises 99% volunteers. ‘I am very proud of the NSW Rural Fire Service. Every day, people are doing extraordinary things; they are very special to me.’

‘Our volunteers come from a diverse range of backgrounds and careers, and every single person has made a choice to be there. We’re not relying on remuneration or threats to get the job done; we’re relying on all the individual parts of the team to work together.

‘Managing such an organisation goes to the heart of fundamental life skills – the art of negotiation and decision-making, and encouraging mutual respect and acceptance in order to engender inclusion, motivation and delivery.’

Shane mentions in both his organisation and experience that he truly feels ‘a leader among equals’. He continues, ‘I never put myself above others – we are greater as a collective than as individuals – and I value the contribution of everyone.

‘I don’t mind whether you are on the frontline, or behind the scenes making sandwiches, it doesn’t matter your role, you are part of a team. A car is more than the engine, more than the wheels, it is greater than its parts alone,’ he emphasises.

True. But a car still needs a driver. So I ask what he thinks people are looking for in a leader: ‘Leadership is about people; they are your most precious resource. If people are content, they are more motivated; more constructive. You need to understand what drives them. People are looking for the human dimension: trust, integrity, good character.

‘In leadership and as an individual, you want to be aligned morally and ethically with the organisation you work for and be able to instil those values,’ he shares. Then, reflecting on his Masters in particular and how he leads in his work, he says without hubris: ‘it reinforced my core values of authenticity, humility, and respect.’

This is what we, as the public, sense already. I am getting close, but I still want to know what makes Shane Fitzsimmons stand apart from so many that stand before us. And then it happens. ‘People want to know their leader cares – about them, about what they are working for, about the organisation as a whole and the people they serve. You’ve got to care about what you’re there for.’

And in one swift fell, he hits the nail on the head. This is what I have been unable to put my finger on – and what makes Shane Fitzsimmons so relatable. He cares. Genuinely. In the small, unscripted, unplanned ways. Pinning a badge on the toddler son of a firefighter who lost his life; being gently outspoken when needed; being there in big ways and small. He has captivated us.

‘We have seen the worst of tragedy this season, the loss of homes and people within the community and, as an organisation, we have seen the loss of firefighters and pilots. You have to care when people are giving their all.’

And there it is again. In that one word, care, I see what sets Shane Fitzsimmons apart and what the public has so naturally warmed to. For a person in his position, experience, ability and qualifications are a given. But it is those things that are not so easily measured, seen – or taught even – that make us who we are. It is the things we are not made to do, what we do when others are not watching, that we expect of ourselves as much of as others that make the difference.

As a nation, we have shown that we are looking to those of this nature to lead us in the uncertain times ahead, to bring out the best in those they lead and nurture the skills, both soft and hard, in the people we are going to need. People that have the compassion and resilience required to help us face the challenges of the future. People we want on our team.

Words: Megan English

Comments (2)

  1. Jennifer Rowland BA (1984)

    Thank you for this important article. As the major contributor to the monthly magazine, Contact, of Canberra City Uniting Church, I shall be drawing on it for an item in a forthcoming issue, with all due acknowledgement to author Megan English, the newsletter and Macquarie University. Following the smoke-filled summer those of us in Canberra experienced, with fires around us and then encroaching from several directions but fortunately not arriving, we acknowledge gratefully the parts played in keeping us informed and as safe as possible by such caring leaders as RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons .


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