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How ANZSOG’s Towards Strategic Leadership helped Adam Gwin focus on fighting fires

27 October 2020

News and media


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As one bushfire season ends, Adam Gwin begins preparations for the following season.

The summer of 2019/20 was a challenging year for the Chief Superintendent of Queensland Fire and Emergency Services in Far North Queensland (FNQ). His dedicated members in the region worked 24-hour operations for 40 consecutive days to gain control of the fires that decimated the Far North landscape.

“We had catastrophic conditions and fatigue management was important because we don’t have huge numbers and we were tired,” says Adam, a 2019 graduate of ANZSOG’s Towards Strategic Leadership (TSL) program.

“We had to make sure we had measures in place to keep our staff well and, once our risk was diminished, they then went to support the rest of the state in their time of need.”

“I see the far northern region as the thermometer for the rest of the state. If I get fires in those areas early, I know the rest of the state will follow within a month or two,” says Adam.

The FNQ region covers more than 200,000 square kilometres and stretches from Cardwell, south of Cairns to the international borders of Papua New Guinea, down into the Gulf and back across the Gulf Savannah and Tablelands. Adam’s remit is to provide the fire and rescue service to communities in the region.

He says the TSL program has helped him to think more deeply about his work, and the value of being flexible and agile when responding to the varied challenges of his role.

“But in addition to the fires, we get the cyclones. Ten years ago, we could set a watch to our operational periods. We’d have a severe cyclone season and that stopped and then it was bushfire season. Now there’s no break.”

That places a significant amount of responsibility on Adam, who has been with Queensland Fire and Emergency Services for 26 years. He has been awarded the Australian Fire Service Medal in recognition of his commitment to firefighting and building community resilience and he has been Commander Operations through several major cyclonic, fire and flood events.

But after leaving high school at the end of Year 10, Adam completed an apprenticeship as a motor mechanic and spent ten years repairing cars.

“I was working six days a week and got to a point in my life when I either had to start my own business or find a job with security and where I could progress in the long term,” says Adam.

“I considered the police but becoming a firefighter and helping the community in that way aligned more with me. I wanted to be in the truck and this job has never been a chore for me.”

His first posting was to a small rural community in the Atherton Tablelands – a significant lifestyle change after being based on the Gold Coast. After that, Adam continued to look for opportunities to develop and tackle new challenges. He moved to Brisbane, moved up the ranks and later joined State Command and fire investigation.

When he was approached to move to Cairns to take on his current role, he embraced yet another opportunity.

“I have always been reasonably self-reliant and I don’t put up boundaries for myself,” says Adam.

“I’m an eternal optimist and I see gaps as opportunities. If someone talks about a weakness, I see it as an opportunity to develop.”

In 2019, Adam completed the TSL program with ANZSOG. The two-week program is designed to provide participants with a defined sense of purpose, a stronger sense of self and the ability to recognise and manage urgent and important tasks within their department and the larger public administration setting.

It is especially suited to public sector executives and those who’ve moved from an operational to a strategic leadership role in a government or not-for-profit organisation.

“It was my initiative to do the TSL program. I have done several courses and the TSL suited my profile. I don’t see myself as an academic and I wanted something that was practical-minded and also had networking opportunities,” he says.

“I spent a week doing the program in Brisbane and a week in Melbourne and the work done outside the room was valuable – the conversations with other participants are still ongoing now and it is incredibly valuable to be able to tap in to other people’s experiences and viewpoints.

“Whether it was a policy, a practice, a statement that I liked or something I wouldn’t do, I took something out of every component of the program.”

Adam still uses the Volatile Uncertain Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) model with his staff to emphasise the importance of being flexible and agile.

“It’s important to question why we are doing something and to question our own thought patterns. The TSL program encourages you to go in with an open mind and embrace it. You need to absorb it all then and think about what the discussions mean to you and what you can take away from each of those. I will certainly look for another opportunity to study with ANZSOG in the future.”

In the meantime, Adam’s focus is on the cyclone and bushfire seasons ahead and working with the many communities within his area that rely on the fire and emergency services for support and protection.

“We have 21 local governments to engage with and about 57 per cent of our local governments are Indigenous-controlled. We have high engagement and community communication strategies to prepare communities when the monsoonal rains arrive. The wet season is always busy,” says Adam.

To keep him grounded as pressure mounts, he remembers his 12-year-old daughter’s succinct summary of what his job is essentially all about.

“As my daughter would say: ‘Dad looks after red trucks’.”

Find out more about ANZSOG’s Foundation Programs

Towards Strategic Leadership (TSL)

A unique two-week program that helps public service leaders develop the qualities needed to thrive in a senior executive role: a strategic outlook, political astuteness, personal resilience and the ability to reflect and learn continuously.

Executive Master of Public Administration (EMPA)

A part-time postgraduate qualification developed and delivered by ANZSOG exclusively for high-performing public sector managers.

Executive Fellows Program (EFP)

A three-week program challenging senior public service executives working in the public domain to develop new leadership perspectives in a contemporary and highly interactive setting.