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ITECA Women in Tertiary Education

Sex Discrimination

Emeritus Professor Rosalind Croucher AM FAAL


[Acknowledgement of country] 

This invitation combines two things I love: talking about leadership to women and tertiary education. 

I can talk about such things for ever, and I will stick to my brief and my time, and look forward to your questions and whichever way they take us. 

Starting with reflections on leadership.


I’ve reflected on leadership styles a lot. I wrote a series of papers and published an article that used cooking analogies to talk about leadership.

At its most basic, leadership is a combination of ‘being there’, ‘being constant’ and ‘being empathetic’ and clear.

There has been an enormous amount of ‘theorising’ about leadership— identifying leadership styles and types; contrasting ‘transactional’ and ‘transformational’ leadership;[1] about ‘authentic leadership’;[2] and about evaluating leadership. (There has been a great deal of ‘popular’ literature as well—like Sheryl Sanders’ book, Lean in—Women, Work and the Will to Lead[3] and also her TED talk).[4]

The ‘note on sources’ provided in the most helpful document produced by the APSC, ‘Thinking about leadership—a brief history of leadership thought’, points to almost 12,000 items on leadership in the National Library of Australia catalogue in 2013; over 45,000 paperback and 20,000 hardback volumes in the Amazon catalogue; and almost 1.8 million journal articles and books on leadership found via Google Scholar.[5]

‘Adaptive leadership’ is characterised as a ‘practice, not a position’, ‘not a theory’. It is the practice of mobilising people to tackle tough challenges and thrive’.[6] Conceptualised in this way, leadership is what people do, not the position they hold.[7] Contrasting ‘management’ and ‘leadership’, the adaptive approach offers ‘a set of tools and principles that can be applied to work through specific challenges and periods of change’.[8]

My thoughts on effective leadership fit nicely within this conceptualisation of leadership. They are practical, not heavily theorised, although there is much theory behind them.

I’ll share a few thoughts here.

1. Good leaders are not micro-managers

How do you know if you are one? In the Harvard Business Review on 11 November 2014, Muriel Maignan Wilkins, co-founder of a boutique executive coaching and leadership development firm, published a list of ‘signs’:[9]

  • You’re never quite satisfied with deliverables.
  • You often feel frustrated because you would’ve gone about the task differently.
  • You laser in on the details and take great pride and/or pain in making corrections.
  • You constantly want to know where all your team members are and what they’re working on.
  • You ask for frequent updates on where things stand.
  • You prefer to be cc’d on emails.

Her advice, if you see yourself in such traits, is to get over yourself; let it go; and expect to win—most of the time. The problem with micro-managers, in my view, is that they obsess about the small picture and miss the big one. They can also destroy morale.

(I contrast pedantry – I am style zealot, which is and entirely different genre!)

2. Good leaders are not perfectionists

This is a complementary observation to the micro-management point. If you are a perfectionist, you have a problem. Perfectionism is a pain. Your 90% is usually someone else’s 200%. 90% is usually good enough.

I found a similar observation in one of those airport bestseller books, Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office—Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers, by Lois P Frankel PhD, an executive coach and corporate trainer.[10] Working through a catalogue of 101 ‘unique mistakes’ she has seen women make at work, Mistake 44 is ‘Striving for Perfection’, which Dr Frankel attributes to women overcompensating because of a belief in being ‘totally flawed’..[11](Another example of ‘imposter syndrome’). She sets her bar lower than mine. Her coaching tip for the mistake of perfectionism is to strive for 80%, because the difference between 80 and 100%, she says, ‘won’t be noticed by most people but will buy you more time to shift to other important tasks’: ‘After all, you are a human being, not a human doing’—cute, but catchy..[12]

How do you know you have reached 80% or 90%? Well, this is not a bright line thing. My rule of thumb is the ‘three drafts rule’ for important things in writing. As long as you have done three solid drafts at least to get there.

3. Good leaders are not time-wasters

A tangible expression of this is that good leaders are good meeting chairs. What makes a good chair? For a start, setting a meeting time with a closing point, a clear agenda, and appropriate breaks. There is established practice for meetings and you need to be on top of this—the law of meetings is your ultimate backstop if you need it..[13]

The Chair is not there to be an orator, but the facilitator of the meeting. To do this well you have to keep the agenda moving, and ensure people have an appropriate opportunity for speaking. Listening, demonstrating empathy, and enabling open communications are key attributes. When you have a large or antagonistic group, taking the speaking order ‘through the Chair’ assists keeping order, and can act to defuse moments of potential tension and reinforcing the Chair’s role as in charge of proceedings. If the group of people are new to each other, then one technique for opening up free flowing discussion and encouraging participation involves quick introductions by each person, and then time reserved at the end for every person to make a final comment.

(And remember to check the room layout before the meeting. Choose your position carefully so that you will be able to have a line of sight to everyone, and adjust your chair to the highest you can, comfortably. Try it and see how effective this is to reinforce that you are in charge of proceedings!)

4. Good leaders build teams and see mentoring as a philosophy of relating

Good leadership should demonstrate mentoring: not as a specific ‘task’, but as part of a whole philosophy of relating to colleagues. This is not about seniority, but about leadership practice (which is what ‘adaptive leadership’ is all about). And it is about nurturing morale.

Mentoring starts with encouragement. Encouragement starts with a greeting. I greet everyone I pass as I walk to my office. Sing out a loud ‘Good Morning’ wherever you can, with the person’s name. But greetings can happen in lots of ways: it’s about knowing people; and valuing them.

One thing I am particularly proud of is how I have sought to encourage others in their careers through active mentoring. I see performance reviews as opportunities for performance development, not management. I am proud to see the progress of those under my supervision — even if, and probably especially if, it means they get higher appointments elsewhere. The APSC ‘Leadership and Core Skills Strategy’ identifies one aspect of what leadership means as ‘Mobilising people to thrive’..[14] And in her TED talk, leadership expert Susan Colantuono describes this as ‘engaging the greatness in others’..[15](Again, cute but catchy).

5. Good leaders show respect

Everyone has a place and each place is important. Respecting everyone in a hierarchy models good behaviour. And, ‘what goes around, comes around’ as they say.

Your team may have lots of ideas that are just like your own, but give them the space to say it, listen, and allow them to ‘own’ the initiative. In the December 2016 issue of the New South Wales Law Society Journal, Fiona Craig wrote a piece entitled, ‘Boss or leader: is there really a difference?’. ‘A boss TAKES CREDIT, a leader GIVES CREDIT’, she wrote—‘a good leader will make sure individuals get the credit they deserve for the work they do’..[16] Similarly, ‘A boss COMPETES with you, a leader SPONSORS you’..[17]

Even in small teams you can make the opportunities to build respect and show encouragement, modelling this behaviour whatever the size of the group.

6. Good leaders convey bad news constructively

Good leaders are able to convey bad news respectfully. At times there will be hard calls to make and, indeed, bad news or critical feedback to be conveyed. I consider that the character of a leader can be seen in the way they convey bad news to a person who has ‘failed’ or missed out on something. Good leaders take personal responsibility for conveying the message and turning it into a message of encouragement. Conversely, I consider that the character of a person is demonstrated in how they take the message of missing out. ‘Spitting the dummy’ tells you a lot about a person; rather than seeking to understand the message and to learn from it, they behave badly.

A word about conveying messages in the performance review context: it helps to start with an affirmation of the good, and to give the person the opportunity to self-assess. It’s amazing how much that opens up the discussion about improvement. Then it is a shared conversation..[18]

7. Good leaders trust in their abilities

Confidence is, first and foremost, trusting in your ability. Women (as a broad generalisation) tend not to ‘blow their own trumpet’, and this sometimes gets reflected in pay differentials and also in a lack of willingness to say ‘no’. ‘Back yourself’, says a book I picked up at the airport en route to the Australian Women Lawyers’ conference in Perth in 2016, Women who Seize the Moment: 11 lessons from those who create their own success. .[19] It’s a familiar sort of literature that you find repackaged in various forms, with common themes — sometimes with accompanying television shows. In writing the foreword to Sheryl Sanders’ book, Belinda Hutchinson AM added her own words of wisdom along similar lines in saying ‘speak up and be ambitious for yourself’.[20]

Confidence is based upon being purposeful. If you ask ‘am I good enough?’; or, ‘if I were good enough, someone else would suggest that I apply for promotion, apply for silk’ etc, then you will be unlikely to succeed. You have to have confidence in your own abilities and achievements before anyone else will. You have to get rid of the feeling that you are ‘a fraud’ or an ‘impostor’, as Sandberg refers to in her chapter that also expresses this idea, under the heading ‘Sit at the table’.[21] ‘Feeling like a fraud’, she says, ‘is part of a greater problem’—ie of consistently underestimating oneself;[22] and of how a lack of confidence ‘can become a self-fulfilling prophecy’.[23] Her advice: ‘now I know to take a deep breath and keep my hand up. I have learned to sit at the table.’[24] This is good advice. Plus my musical addition: blow away!

Confidence is also about finding your own style.

In a speech that Justice Roslyn Atkinson AO of the Queensland Supreme Court delivered in February 2016, she spoke of a lesson of leadership that she learned ‘very early on’, that ‘you are quintessentially yourself’.[25] She became ‘acutely aware’ of her own personal attributes, including her weaknesses and strengths. She seized upon this in giving this advice:

If you are an extrovert, you will be an extrovert as a leader. If you are by nature co-operative or collegial, you will be that as a leader. If you are a quiet achiever, then you will lead by example through your quiet achievements.[26]

It was as much a message about knowing yourself, as don’t doubt yourself. Leadership expert Susan Colantuono refers to this in her TED talk as ‘using the greatness in you’.[27]

8. Good leaders show constancy

People need to know what to expect of you; and even before that, you need to know what to expect of yourself. You need to develop what I think of as your own inner gyroscope, a point of moral equilibrium where you know that a decision is correct: your set of principles against which you can defend your judgments even to yourself. It provides you constancy.

Roslyn Atkinson reflected a similar sense when she said later in that same speech that ‘you can only succeed in life by being true to yourself and to your own beliefs, principles and manner of dealing with the world’.[28] That’s what I call the inner gyroscope. It drives constancy in your approach to all manner of things. I put it into practice in a personal mantra of ‘doing each day well’.

And the more your gyroscope is tested, the more confident you will grow in your own judgment; and others will see that constancy in you, which is crucial to good leadership. It also generates respect. People may not like your decisions all the time — but so long as you know and feel confident in the ‘rightness’ of what you are doing, it helps the doing each day well to continue over a lifetime.

The title of Fiona Craig’s article, ‘Boss or leader: is there really a difference?’ was, of course, a rhetorical question. One example that is particularly apt in relation to what I am referring to the inner gyroscope, is where Fiona says: ‘A boss leads from EGO, a leader leads from VALUES’: ‘Ego often gets in the way for bosses, whereas strong leaders work from a value base that is clear to their team. Where team and leadership values are clear and unambiguous, everyone knows where they stand, and what is expected of them.’[29]

I will add a bit of supplementary advice, or a PS, here. Really tough decisions are usually accompanied by what I call the ‘foetal 48 hours’. Any hard decision requires a moment of agony. But from long experience I can say that that agony is good; it is a formative part of the decision-making process. The foetal part of it lasts about 48 hours. Suddenly, a moment of clarity—and it’s behind you. If you build that into your thinking: it’s only going to last 48 hours and then it’ll be fine, it’s a good way of building your resilience strategies (which I will speak about later).

And there will be times when you have to make tough decisions; where it is utterly ‘your call’. With all the management training in the world, and lessons in dealing with difficult people, at times empathy runs out and hierarchy kicks in. This is where you will need your inner gyroscopic, and faith in the foetal 48 hours!

9. Good leaders are patient

Patience is an essential element in time management—for yourself and for others. Listening is a demonstration of patience. Managing meetings is largely about listening and managing the listening of others.

Another example concerns responding to certain emails. If an email fires you up, makes you angry, gets under your skin, wait. Write the reply you feel at the first rush, but do not send it. Write it to yourself, in case you hit the send button accidentally. Everything you write has to be testable against that inner set of principles and also defensible to others — another example of constancy. The angriest emails are the ones that are in the bin; and writing them has a remarkable way of getting it out of your system. If you are not sure how to respond, quietly consult your mentor/s (that by now you have established) and add in a dash of the 48 hours.

I note that the APS Leadership and Core Skills Strategy: 2014–15 refresh added to the list of ‘leadership practice for development across the APS’, ‘moral courage and independent judgment’.[30] This sounds similar to some of the things I have just described.

Overcoming challenges

When you are an ambitious person, you may feel that everyone else is doing so much more than you are and you are being left behind. We can punish ourselves with a sense of the weight of expectations and, in its wake, a sense of failure or at least disappointment for not meeting them.

Managing the expectations you put on yourself is essentially about prioritising, and understanding what the bounds of ‘normal’ are in the particular area of concern. My advice? This is normal. These feelings don’t go away; they only get managed. Doing lists and prioritising have worked for me. (Particularly lists of what you have done, as well as the lists of things you need to do).

Women’s careers, in the main, are never linear; they are never straightforward. I’m not speaking about everyone’s careers but, as a generalisation, about many of the women I have known, and about many who are in extraordinary places in their lives. Their careers, their pathways in life, have not been straightline, ‘traintrack’ ones, but more a series of zig-zag lines all over the place. Sheryl Sandberg refers to careers as ‘a jungle gym, not a ladder’.[31]

And career paths only make sense backwards. Looking forwards, women’s careers are rarely straightforward.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s father-in-law gave her advice regarding starting law school when she was pregnant and then with a small infant in tow.

‘Ruth, if you don’t want to start law school, you have a good reason to resist the undertaking. No one will think less of you if you make that choice. But if you really want to study law, you stop worrying and find a way to manage child and school.’

And so she did and, many times after, when the road was rocky, she thought back to his wisdom, spent no time fretting, and found a way to do what she thought important to get done. She let her life wrap itself around her children in a very pragmatic way; and she found the way to be true to herself.

I have had many occasions where young lawyers have come to me, fretting a bit, about having to ‘give up’ things to pursue their careers, to care for the kids, whatever. My answer is a simple one. You can’t have everything at once, and at times you have to put a pause on some things, but it doesn’t mean you to leave things behind forever.

And be prepared to shift plans. After only one year of holding a practising certificate as a lawyer, on my pathway to becoming a barrister, my career path shifted into the academic world. The shift for me was after my first child was born—and that took me into a wonderful career.

And so you need to be realistic as well as patient—especially where children are involved. For many women their stories, as was mine, are intertwined with a very simple fact: someone has to look after the kids. Children get sick constantly till they are five years old. Later in life you might have elderly parents who need a lot of attention. Your partner may get sick. You may get sick. All sorts of things happen in life, which is part of the normal part of just being human. All you can manage is one day at a time, and so long as you do each day well, then a lifetime of days is constructed and careers are made of doing each day well.

You may have a sense of where you would like to be in five years as an aspirational goal — indeed it is good if you are thinking ahead like this as part of setting your mid-term priorities. But it doesn’t matter if you don’t get there, so long as you get to a somewhere that is a position where you wake up every day feeling happy to do what you are doing. You don’t want to be in a position where you wake up and say, ‘I don’t want to go to school mummy!’; and if you are in that place you are in the wrong place and you need to change it.

Women like me owe our freedoms to women who broke the ice for us — and here I count people like the wonderful late Patron of the NSW WLA, the Hon Jane Matthews AC; the Hon Elizabeth Evatt AC, first Chief Justice of the Family Court; and the Hon Mary Gaudron AC, the first woman on the High Court, to name but a few — and then, gradually, made it ‘normal’ to expect to be successful professionals and to expect to go as far as we want to in our professional, and personal, lives.

I found that the academic path suited me best — for much of my professional life before I took up my ALRC Commission. It gave me a semblance of control over my schedules that enabled me to manage the ‘pulls’ of family and, at the same time, to manage to engage with my career and to maintain the relationships, professional and personal, that were sustaining.

I accidentally fell into a career that worked around my children as well as providing me with fulfilment (and fun). And the kids do grow up (although then they create a whole other set of issues of their own to deal with — including having your grandchildren, and that involves another kind of patience altogether).

If I were to give any advice on the children front, it would be: don’t try to fit your children into your career, but fit your career around your kids. And although someone has to look after the kids, I understand the department has an excellent childcare centre. And a caveat: please do not expect your mums to take on this role. You can’t build your careers based on an expectation or practice of exploiting your mums.

And the kids do grow up (although then they create a whole other set of issues of their own to deal with — including having your grandchildren, and that involves another kind of patience altogether).

Age gives you perspective—and perspective is a wonderful thing. Be open and optimistic to possibilities. You will be surprised where it leads you.

More speeches

More speeches by Rosalind Croucher.


[1] APSC, Thinking about leadership—a brief history of leadership thought, 12.
[2]Ibid, 13. 
[3] Published by WH Allen, 2015. 
[4]Why we have too few women leaders’ (2010). 
[5] Ibid, 4. 
[6] Ibid, 14, referring to Ronald Heifetz, Leadership without Easy Answers (1994). 14. 
[7]APSC, APS Leadership and Core Skills Strategy: 2014–15 refresh, 16. 
[8] Ibid, 15.
[9] MM Wilkins:, ‘Signs that you’re a micromanager’, Harvard Business Review, 11 November 2014. 
[10] Business Plus, New York, 2004. 
[11] Ibid, 120. 
[12] ‘Forget perfection’ is also something Angela Priestley notes: Women who Seize the Moment, 201. 
[13]Like Joske’s law and Procedure at Meetings in Australia, Thomson Reuters. The 11th ed was published in 2012. 
[14]APSC, APS Leadership and Core Skills Strategy: 2014–15 refresh, 17. 
[15] Susan Colantuono, ‘The career advice you probably didn’t get’, November 2013. 
[16] F Craig, ‘Boss or leader: is there really a difference?’ (2016) 29 Law Society Journal 42, 43. 
[17] Craig, 43. 
[18] Lois Frankel has particular advice on giving critical feedback and says that, over time, ‘you must give seven pieces of positive feedback for every one piece of negative’ and that when positive feedback is given, make sure that it is free from implied criticism: 174. 
[19] By Angela Priestly. 2nd ed 2016. 
[20] Ibid, x. Hutchinson illustrates this in a number of contexts. 
[21] Sandberg, ch 2. 
[22]Ibid, 29. 
[23]Ibid, 33. 
[24]Ibid, 38. 
[25] Women’s Speaker Series, Department of Defence, accessed 3 August 2016, 6. 
[26] Ibid, 7. 
[27] Susan Colantuono, ‘The career advice you probably didn’t get’, November 2013.
[28] Ibid, 9. Justice Atkinson is one that expresses engaging as including being ‘generous’—by active mentoring, but also by looking out for colleagues and caring about their welfare, particularly in times of crisis or stress: 12. 
[29]F Craig, ‘Boss or leader: is there really a difference?’ (2016) 29 Law Society Journal 42, 43. 
[30] APS Leadership and Core Skills Strategy: 2014–15 refresh, 19. 
[31] Sandberg, ch 4

rosalind croucher

Rosalind Croucher AM, President

Commission – General