Courage under the spotlight

The coronial inquest into the Lindt café siege is in its last days. Announced in December 2014 and commencing in May 2015, this inquest has occurred in the blinding light of daily public scrutiny. Via the daily news feed, it has unfolded as an essay in human frailty, terror and courage.

There were many courageous acts. The stories of the hostages reveal continuing acts of courage and self-sacrifice as they faced the slowly dawning realisation that no-one was coming to rescue them.

The stories from the police, who were finally sent inside to end the siege, reveal extraordinary courage as they faced what they believed was certain death.

These are big things and they make us proud that humans can rise to the occasion in this way – even at the potential cost of their own lives.

However there was also a smaller story of courage that deserves recognition and admiration. In our working lives, many of us experience the disappointment at the self-interest and lack of integrity that drives many career paths. We are particularly short of heroes as we watch business leaders concealing or denying their mistakes, blaming others and consistently failing to meet the expectations of the kind of behaviour we want our leaders to demonstrate.

This makes the recent actions of Jeremy Gormly SC, counsel assisting the State Coroner, particularly courageous and admirable. In the mountains of evidence compiled for the inquest was a box of evidence - a collection of documents including handwritten and other notes made by the three officers and police scribes. The contents of the box were directly relevant to the evidence which was about to be given by the top police in New South Wales. The box was missing.

Immediately before the police evidence was to start, Gormly revealed that he had found the box and announced that it was his own error for which he took full responsibility. It was an explosive announcement and caused a significant delay in the police evidence while the documents were inspected. Gormly came under fire.

We all make mistakes, many of them big – some of them life-threatening. Managing the mountains of evidence required to be processed in an enquiry lasting more than a year is not a task any of us could guarantee to complete without error.

What defines us is not whether or not we make mistakes. Rather it is the courage and integrity (or lack of them) we reveal in dealing with our mistakes. No-one knew about the box. He could have left it hidden or destroyed it. He could have stayed silent or blamed an assistant and protected his professional reputation from criticism and other possible consequences. Gormly did none of these things and I am confident, as the speed of his revelation demonstrated, that thoughts of such behaviour never crossed his mind. He spoke up immediately and honourably – he did not make any excuses or blame anyone else.

This is an act of courage and integrity which defines real leadership.