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Empathy in leaders: A journalist’s perspective

 

As part of the recent commentary on the characteristics of effective leadership, Quarry editor Damian Christie (pictured above and below) explains the importance of empathy in his role working with the quarrying industry for the past 13 years.

In 2021, the Institute of Quarrying Australia (IQA) invited me to present a monthly article, based on one of the seven core characteristics of effective leadership (see Figure 1).

Rather than write all seven scenarios myself, I invited numerous people to make a contribution, from a diverse demographic and a number of industries.

This additional chapter features a narrative from Quarry editor Damian Christie who selected empathetic relationships for his account of becoming an effective leader.   

I offered the following brief explanation for Empathetic Relationships in my book:

Empathetic leaders have the ability to recognise, understand and share the thoughts and feelings of another person. They acknowledge the story without judgement.

– Mike Cameron

DAMIAN CHRISTIE’S STORY

Quarry editor Damian Christie.

As a journalist on and off for the best part of 25 years, I’ve had the opportunity to work across a variety of industries: the youth and child welfare sectors, in medical education and professional development, in a peak advocate for the confectionery industry, and for more than 13 years for the quarrying industry. 

When I explain this to people, they are surprised at the extensive and diverse fields I’ve covered. However, this shouldn’t be altogether surprising. Journalists – whether they work for trade publications (as I do), newspapers, magazines, television or the internet – all start out as “generalists”, that is, reporting and writing about an assortment of different topics and themes. On a community newspaper in particular – and especially so if you’re based in the regions – you could be a police reporter, sports reporter, real estate correspondent, local politics commentator and even arts and crafts scribe all rolled into one. Talk about adaptability and flexibility!

While many journalists ultimately specialise in certain fields and industries (eg economics, politics, entertainment, aviation, transport, etc), and earn enormous respect for their work in these specialties, they nevertheless will have been savvy enough at the beginning of their careers to write about an array of other content. And they will not just have needed to write well about different topics, they will have needed to be enthusiastic about them too. If journalists don’t approach each and every assignment with an open mind, they will be unable to write well – and will certainly lose their readers if they can’t present pieces of writing that are insightful, persuasive and compelling.

So when people remark that I’ve “been around”, I attribute working across different industries as part and parcel of my profession.  It might seem negative and daunting to non-writers to effectively have to reset when you move into a new role that is covering unfamiliar territory. But, in many ways it is simply about having adaptability and due diligence. A journalist’s role doesn’t greatly alter when they move into a new field – they still report and communicate as always – it just requires them to learn and better understand the field they have joined, and to be empathetic.

Figure 1. The Effective Leadership model.

LEARNING ‘ON THE JOB’

I’ve been a long-standing editor of Quarry, the IQA’s official journal, since mid-2008. While I was aware that quarries existed (I’m a lover of science fiction films and television, and Doctor Who in particular is full of quarries masquerading as extra-terrestrial environments), I knew next to nothing about the Australian industry when I started and I certainly had no work experience on a site. But then again, I knew very little about the other industries I’d worked in when I came to them fresh – confectionery, surgical disciplines, obstetrics and gynaecology, etc. It was simply a matter of learning more about the extractive industry, presenting myself at IQA meetings where I could meet and talk with members of the industry, and taking time out of the office to undertake site visits and learn as much about the industry as I could “on the job”, so to speak. I found that the more I visited quarries and saw the plant and equipment in action – particularly the crushing and screening circuits – the more I could start to relate what was happening on-site with the material that I was editing for the magazine.

Something else that in hindsight was to my advantage was an unexpected invitation I received within one week of beginning as Quarry editor. It was from an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) to attend the launch of a drill rig – in Finland. I’d been to Europe before but all the same going to a launch in Finland (a country I’d never visited) within a month of starting a new role was surreal and daunting. However, it was a godsend because I was able to meet with like-minded journalists and editors on other mining and quarrying titles from the US, South Africa, Asia and Europe; communications and marketing personnel from within the OEMs; and engineers that designed and operated the plant and equipment. I found everyone accessible and personable, and I was able to learn more about the industry first-hand than I could have from just editing articles that my predecessor had commissioned. It was a fast-tracked introduction to my new industry, and a worthwhile one. 

My first “quarry” was actually an open pit mine in the north of Finland. But, in the months that followed I started visiting more quarries around Australia, including the Boral Deer Park Quarry and the Penrith Lakes Development Corporation. I’ve visited plenty of quarries around the country, small and large, in the past 13 years. With each visit I began to better comprehend some of the technical aspects of the extractive industry. Seeing the processes for myself meant the words I was editing and writing began to make more sense. Even now, I wouldn’t say I completely understand the way crushers, screens and washers work. However, I believe I have a better understanding now of the work quarries do and why their contributions to society are often understated and largely unappreciated.

ENGAGING WITH INDUSTRY PEOPLE

A lot has changed about my role in the past 13 years. But the one thing I still enjoy about it is meeting and engaging with industry people, from the quarry managers and supervisors in the pit to the engineers on the plant and equipment side. Quarry professionals are modest but passionate, knowledgeable, good-humoured, hard-working, down to earth individuals. They are open and willing to talk about their work and the processes and plants they operate. As a journalist, you need to think about the right questions to ask and encourage them to tell their stories.

And while they may scoff at the suggestion, quarry professionals often have fascinating stories to tell. In an issue of Quarry recently, I had the pleasure of talking to possibly one of Australia’s youngest quarrying managers, who had little more than two years’ experience, as well as two of the industry’s most experienced, one of whom has worked for the same quarrying business for almost 50 years. Now’s that variety.

A highlight of the sojourn to Finland was a visit to the Temppeliaukio Church in Helsinki. The interior of this rock temple was excavated and built directly out of solid granite.

While I have been Quarry editor for 13 years, I don’t automatically think of myself as a leader. My role has traditionally been solitary, self-driven and autonomous. Across two publishers I’ve worked with several business development managers that are in charge of Quarry’s sales and I’ve even managed and mentored a good 10 staff journalists (one at a time). But I often think of those relationships as more collaborative and team-orientated than “leading from the front” or “leading by example”. Empathy is an important trait in a role like mine. It’s about not only dealing internally with my peers, but also externally with quarrying professionals. It also ties back to what I wrote earlier – that if I’m not passionate about my work, if I’m not prepared to empathise with members of the extractive industry and their challenges and issues, then it is next to impossible to be able to convey that empathy into words on a page and to in turn engage my readers when they open the latest issue of Quarry or click on a story online.

It’s easy to accuse some journalists of being sensationalist, of chasing stories for click-bait headlines and to court controversy, and no doubt there are instances where some are guilty as charged. However, if that was part of my remit as a writer and editor, it would not only make me non-empathetic, it would make me unethical. I see working with members of the quarrying industry as a collaborative process. I want to give them favourable coverage and tell positive stories – providing some publicity about the important work they do and which often eludes them. To that end, when I organise interviews, whether it is face to face, telephone or online, I send questions in advance to give a person time to think about their answers. Further, once the interview is conducted and the article is written and ready for publication, the story goes back to the interviewee for feedback and approval. It would be counter-productive of me to run a story without a person’s input. I think of the interview process as an informal partnership – with the aim of telling a good story and portraying the quarry and its representative in a positive light. I’m all about “win-win” scenarios. It gives Quarry credibility if we can tell good stories, and it also gives quarry professionals and their sites or businesses a positive outcome. Further, there is then the scope for me to revisit a given person and their quarry operation at a later time.

BEING YOUR BEST

As unlikely as it may seem on the surface, empathy – particularly in dealing with members of the extractive industry – has been a critical part of my work for more than a decade. I doubt I would have lasted the distance if it were otherwise. I’ve really enjoyed my time on the “fringes” of the quarrying industry, and the role remains ongoing. As I’ve said, I’ve always found members of the extractive industry warm and accommodating, and it’s always fair that I repay that trust in kind in the way I engage and interact with them. Being empathetic isn’t just about being a better leader – it’s about being a better person, and the best person you can be, and undertaking two-way communication. If you’re empathetic, then the ability to lead, guide or inspire should come naturally, and almost with minimal effort.

It’s a pity that COVID-19 has had such a massive impact on our lives in Australia in the past 18 months. In that time, empathy has been very sorely needed in the way people interact and perform as human beings. Contact between members of the extractive industry has particularly been impacted. Even more frustratingly, that contact has been further curtailed every time it seemed the worst was behind us. I look forward to reconnecting with members of the industry beyond the phone or a computer monitor in the not too distant future.•

Damian Christie is the editor of Quarry, the official journal of the Institute of Quarrying Australia, published by Prime Creative Media. Email: damian.christie@primecreative.com.au

This story appeared in the December 2021 issue of Quarry.

EFFECTIVE LEADERS – AVAILABLE NOW

This article and other chapters on effective leadership form part of the book Effective Leaders: Four Attributes that underpin the core characteristics of Effective Leadership, written and edited by Mike Cameron FIQ. The book is available to order via the Strategically Yours website.

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