True leadership in a crisis
Former police officer Peter Baines made the leap from constable to an international forensics expert. His roles included leading the investigations at the Bali bombing and working in Indonesia post-tsunami. This month he recounted his experiences with eAgenda editor Grant Stockwell.
Q: How many years did you work as a police officer and what inspired you to join the force?
I joined in 1986 and left in 2008 so I had 22 years in the force. I enrolled in an arts degree at university when I finished school only because I didn’t have the marks to get into anything else. Six months after I started I wondered why I was doing it and then another six months later I joined the police force. I had no idea why. I was working part time at Grace Brothers and a couple of police officers walked in dressed in their uniforms and I thought “why not become a policeman” – that’s why I joined. It was a spur of the moment decision; I just thought it was a great opportunity at the time.
Q: How did you start working as an international disaster management specialist?
Again it was fate. I worked in uniform at Cabramatta Police Station in Sydney’s west for five years and it was a really busy place, but that was good because there were lots of challenges and it was lots of fun. It was a great learning experience. I applied for a role in the forensics department in 1991. I was basically working at Cabramatta and living at Dolls Point and the commute every day was a fair drive. I was also getting sick of talking to drunks doing night shift and dealing with domestic arguments. There was an advertisement in our internal magazine so I applied and got accepted into the department.
Q: How would describe the transition into forensics?
I was working in Sydney at crime scenes in the forensic area and then a position came up in Tamworth doing forensics and I spent 10 years up there. At the same time I did a science degree through the police force. Then one day I was giving evidence at a house fire trial and I realised the barrister didn’t have the in-depth knowledge to ask me the challenging questions. So I thought if I got a law degree there was an avenue to create a unique opportunity for myself to become a forensics specialist. I was studying law, science and working at the same time. Nobody in New South Wales had done the same thing.
Q: You say that one of the most positive things about working in disasters was that true leaders were quickly identified – what are the traits of a true leader?
It all depends on how they respond to challenging and confronting situations. I talk about leadership without authority – that’s when you look at the org chart and you can see it cascade all the way down which gives you a clear definition of everybody’s roles. Then there are leaders who step up unexpectedly. They show their leadership through their actions and reactions to a crisis. It’s the same in sport, leaders direct a team around the park naturally, you don’t pick a captain and develop them, it is the other way around.
Q: What can attendees at your Leadership in a Crisis presentation in Cairns look forward to?
They will definitely hear some contextual leadership messages. They’ll hear some unique stories about my times in extremely difficult and confronting situations like the Bali bombing and the tsunami in Indonesia and how they played out. As an organisation, team or individual we all need clarity of purpose. The stories will be different to what the guests experience in their workplace and different to what they confront each day but the challenges about why they do what they do will be similar.
Q: You founded the Australian charity called Hands Across the Water – what does it do?
I led the forensic teams at the tsunami – I was leading the Australian and international staff which consisted of 400 forensic staff from 36 different countries. On my last rotation over there I met a group of kids who were living in a tent because their house and families had been washed away. I thought about what could I do for them. I knew I couldn’t change what had happened but I also knew I could change their future. So I started the charity and looked at setting up homes. We now run seven different projects across Thailand and have built six new homes in Chang Mai for kids who were involved in the sex traffic industry. We also run an orphanage for children affected by HIV.
Read more from the May 2013 edition of eAgenda