Leadership Intensive Recap – 12 August 2019

Roz Ward – Values based strategic impact

On August 3, 1857, American social reformer and abolitionist Frederick Douglass delivered a speech in Canandaiqua, New York in which he proclaimed, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” For Roz Ward, one of the guest speakers at our recent leadership intensive at the Victorian Council of Social Services, Douglass has long been a source of inspiration.

When Roz co-founded and developed the Safe Schools Coalition Victoria in 2010, she had no idea of the struggles she would encounter whilst trying to implement greater support for gender and sexual diversity in Australian schools. The Safe Schools program was launched in 2010 to an overwhelmingly positive response from educators and students. However, in the lead up to the federal election of 2016, it became the focus of increasingly vitriolic attacks by conservative community groups, politicians, and elements of the media.

For Roz, the experience has confirmed the knowledge that social progress is rarely easily won. It has prompted her to question the relationship between leadership, change and risk.

In the face of intense opposition, Roz refused to abandon her dream of safer schools for LGBTI students. She drew strength from her belief that the program was the right approach to tackling a troubling social issue. Surrounded by a team who shared her vision for educational change, she found the courage to continue advocating for Safe Schools, even after her character was attacked and her personal safety threatened.

For Roz, the experience has confirmed the knowledge that social progress is rarely easily won. It has prompted her to question the relationship between leadership, change and risk. Does making change require taking risks? What is the relationship between leadership and risk? And how does one cope as a leader when the personal and political collide?

Maha Sukkar – Leading in a diverse and inclusive environment

Our second speaker, Maha Sukkar made the decision to abandon her career as a graphic designer and join the police force in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Commuting to work the following morning, she instinctively understood that the world had changed. As a Muslim woman, it was as if the temperature in the carriage had plummeted overnight. Where she used to encounter smiles and random conversations, she now encountered blank looks and thinly-veiled hostility. She knew that she must act to promote greater social justice.

It took Maha two and a half years to successfully join the police force. First, she had to convince those in power to allow her to wear a traditional Muslim hijab whilst on duty. It was a long battle, but Maha was determined to call out discrimination where she saw it, and eventually succeeded. In 2004, she was inducted into the force and became the first Australian police woman permitted to wear a hijab.

Instead of accepting the “one approach fits all” ethos prevalent at the time, Maha modelled a different approach to policing more suited to contemporary Australian society.

Since then, she has devoted her career to breaking down social and institutional barriers based on discrimination. Once on the job, it quickly became apparent to Maha that many of her co-workers were struggling to successively negotiate the situations they were encountering with members of the public from CALD communities in the line of duty. She set about updating training procedures, incorporating multicultural scenarios designed to increase the cultural intelligence of recruits. Instead of accepting the “one approach fits all” ethos prevalent at the time, Maha modelled a different approach to policing more suited to contemporary Australian society.

Building positive relationships to promote cultural change is a key component of Maha’s leadership style. She works tirelessly to connect with migrant communities who have traditionally been fearful of the police force. By gradually gaining their trust, she encourages individuals to seek help from the police when needed. Whether developing an education campaign to raise awareness of arranged and forced marriages, establishing the Victoria Police Muslim Association, working on the riot squad, or protecting victims of family violence, cultural intelligence is crucial to her success.

Self-care was a hot topic at this session, with participants keen to discover how Roz and Maha safeguard their own mental health and well-being whilst fighting for a more inclusive society. Each admitted to feeling overwhelmed at times, and have experienced moments where they were tempted to walk away from the struggle. Both nominated their personal values as the driving force in their quests for social progress.

In order to safeguard her health during the Safe Schools furore, Roz found it necessary to filter media coverage of the debate. She also integrated theoretical perspectives into her day to day analysis of events, a strategy that helped her to differentiate the personal from the political in a highly volatile situation. Regular swimming sessions provided a much-needed physical break from the stress she was under.

Advocating for social change is exhausting work and it is important to surround yourself with people who understand the challenges you are facing.

Maha encouraged participants to build strong support networks of colleagues, friends, and family. Advocating for social change is exhausting work and it is important to surround yourself with people who understand the challenges you are facing.

The topic of social justice was also explored, as participants grappled with complex ethical questions under the guidance of course facilitator Catherine Santo. There were no easy answers to the questions raised, but all are worthy of further consideration: If we are aware of an injustice in our community, do we have a responsibility to address it? What stops us from calling out injustice when we see it? What role does fear play in leadership? What do we currently tolerate that should not be tolerated? What trade-offs do we make in our day to day work as leaders? Are these trade-offs acceptable? What risks are we prepared to take as leaders and individuals to bring about cultural change?