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Peter Baines OAM: What The Boxing Day Tsunami Taught Me About Leadership

Peter Baines worked in the disaster victim identification team following the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004. Today he is a leadership consultant and runs a charity, Hands Across the Water.

By Nicola Heath

When Peter Baines switched on the television late on Boxing Day in 2004, with news of the immense devastation caused by a tsunami in the Indian Ocean just coming in, he knew his holiday was over.

A member of the NSW Police forensics unit, Baines was soon on a plane to Thailand, where he would lead Australian and international teams in identifying thousands of tsunami victims and repatriating their bodies.

Baines’ police career began in uniform in Cabramatta, a suburb in south-western Sydney that was notorious for drug dealing in the 1980s and 1990s. After four and a half years at “Cabra”, he moved to the Forensic Services Group. “That wasn’t by design. Having worked at Cabra for the time I did I was looking for a way to get out,” he says. “I grew tired of what we were doing in uniform and forensics looked like it offered something different.” Ten years in the Crime Scene Unit in the regional city of Tamworth followed, before Baines was promoted to the rank of Inspector and returned to Sydney in 2002.

Working overseas: Bali and Thailand

After terrorists detonated two deadly bombs in nightclubs in Kuta, Bali in October 2002, killing 202 people, Baines’ experience in forensics saw him become part of the leadership team that oversaw the identification of bodies at the crime scene.

A little over two years later, the Indian Ocean tsunami hit. “Because of the work we’d done in Bali, I knew I’d end up over in Thailand,” says Baines.

He had several month-long deployments in Thailand throughout 2005. “When I wasn’t over there I was back in NSW coordinating the deployment of the next teams.”

Baines and his colleagues faced enormous challenges. The nature of the crisis meant that the response was inherently reactive. “As organisations look at a major change process, they have the time to plan and respond and deal with the issues of resistance beforehand,” he says. In this case, teams on the ground had to respond to events with little preparation.

The massive scale of the disaster meant that leadership became more important than well thought out contingency plans. “We recovered 5395 bodies that had to be identified, which was thousands bigger than 9/11, therefore thousands bigger than anything that had been seen before. There were close to 450 forensic staff who came from around the world, coming from 36 different countries, and there was no leadership structure in place,” says Baines.

“There comes a time when the consulting, the meetings and all of that need to stop, and you need to take action.”

Managing the response was a huge undertaking and it fell to those who were first on the ground, in many cases Australians. They had to quickly establish the leadership structure necessary to take on large tasks. The way they handled it offers a number of lessons in leadership, says Baines. “At one temple there were 3500 bodies,” he says. “You can’t just turn up and make the process up, you need a structure in place.”

Sensitivity and diplomacy were crucial. “Both in Bali and Thailand, we were saying to the local authorities … the way they were operating was inconsistent with the way it needed it to be done, so we were imposing our standards upon them,” says Baines. “Leading with sensitivity enabled us to bring about that change program.”

The Australians also acted with speed and led with simplicity. Leaders need to make decisions, says Baines. “There comes a time when the consulting, the meetings and all of that need to stop, and you need to take action.” The reason so many Australians were appointed to leadership positions had a lot to do with the fact they took action early.

This principle applies to business, too. “If you wait until you have all the answers to all the possible questions before you start, someone will beat you to it,” says Baines, using Uber’s disruption of the taxi industry as a case in point. Everyone recognises the name Uber, but nobody knows who arrived second on the scene. “That’s the point, it doesn’t matter who follows. [Uber] moved first,” he says. “It’s the same with what the Australians did. We just moved first, and people followed. It doesn’t mean we were the best.”

The importance of presence was another lesson he learned in Thailand, and one that he shares with his clients in his role as a leadership consultant. “When you’re present it tells people you’re working with that you care and you understand. If you’re absent, while you can be really informed, if the people you’re working with don’t see you they’ll think you don’t care.”

The next step: Hands Across the Water

Baines next worked on an international counterterrorism project for Interpol, based in Lyons, France, and in the UN Office of Drug and Crime. But he could not forget the children he’d met in Thailand, who had been left homeless by the tsunami. He set up a charity, Hands Across the Water, to help them.

At the end of his international secondments, he applied for 12 months’ leave without pay to work on the charity full-time. His request was rejected, and Baines resigned after 22 years with NSW Police.

Baines now focuses most of his energy on Hands Across the Water. “I make my living through the speaking and consulting work I do, which allows me to run the charity full-time,” he explains.

“If you wait until you have all the answers to all the possible questions before you start, someone will beat you to it.”

The organisation supports 300 children in seven locations across Thailand. “How we measure the impact of what we’re doing is what choice do kids have when they leave our homes. We now have 43 kids who are studying at university at the moment, we have two kids who have already graduated – one with a law degree, one with a business degree – and that’s how we measure the success of what we do.

“It’s not in dollars, it’s not in number of kids, or number of homes. It’s what choice the kids have when it comes time to leave our home,” says Baines. “Where they go and what they do is how we measure our success.”

Sharing leadership lessons

The former forensics officer has also established a commercial arm to generate income for the charity. “We’re on the way to raising $20 million without having spent any money on fundraising or admin,” he explains. Ticket sales to regular events like the Future of Leadership series, where nine sought-after speakers donate their time, are one income source. “It’s not a donation,” Baines explains. “It’s the profit that’s donated to the charity.”

Baines also runs leadership programs, from domestic courses to week-long programs in the slums of Khlong Toei in Bangkok. “It’s real experiential learning,” he says.

Participants learn about leadership without authority. “True leaders are identified by their actions and their reactions. It’s less about the position that they hold and more about what they do and how they respond,” says Baines.

Clarity of purpose is another thing he emphasises. “When we’re tested as an organisation, whether it’s turmoil, a change in the economy, whether it’s through unprecedented growth, we’ve got to understand what are the fundamentals and the non-negotiables, and that applies to an individual as well.”

He also advocates shared experiences as the best way for leaders to build engagement. “If you want to build stronger teams and work units, then engineer shared experiences. Don’t think just talking about engagement is going to do that for you.”

Baines says engagement is central to the success of Hands Across the Water. “The reason we enjoy the success we do is that we bring value back to those who engage with us. People might think they’re initially engaging with us because they’re supporting the kids, but they very quickly realise that they’re getting a bigger return. That’s why we see really high retention rates of those who engage with us.”

Find out more about Peter Baines and his availability to speak at your event through The Supernova Tribe. Visit the The Supernova Tribe website for more information. 


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