Women in leadership: mistakes will help you learn who you are

By Harley Dennett

September 26, 2018


Mistakes will help you learn who you are, what drives you, and that will provide one of the most important characteristics of leadership: authenticity.

For anyone who has witnessed women’s leadership and behaviour face more scrutiny than men’s, and anyone who, after a mistake at work, wondered how they can go on, recent women in leadership conversations in Canberra have offered a cathartic relief.

The second in the IPAA ACT Women in Leadership forum series, held yesterday, invited three female Commonwealth department secretaries to build upon the earlier Williams Oration in which Ann Sherry reflected on the toughest moments of her career as a chief executive.

Dr Michelle Bruniges from Education, Kerri Hartland from Jobs and Small Business, and the newest secretary appointee, Liz Cosson from Veterans’ Affairs found common ground in the importance of self-awareness and authenticity to any leadership style.

“If people understand what you stand for, people will stand by you”

Integrity and being authentic is key to a leader’s effectiveness, says Bruniges, no matter what your gender. “But it applies more so to women. Why do I say that? Because leadership style of women and behaviours are sometimes subject to more scrutiny than those of male counterparts and we can all think of examples of where that’s forefront.”

The event was introduced with a reminder of women who had been cut down as leaders of Australian organisations, in business, in politics and in the public sector – although it was hardly a necessary reminder with leaks against Michelle Guthrie and Julie Bishop still filling the media cycle.

How do you stay level under that kind of scrutiny? Being aware of your own triggers, the things that cause you to react, suggests Bruniges, as well as how you’re going to manage them.

“If people understand what you stand for, people will stand by you,” the Education secretary advised women in the public sector.

Leadership is a constant learning experience, says Hartland. Mistakes happen, but you shouldn’t waste them. For instance, they can teach lessons than might not have been a priority in leadership training when a person first started. For Hartland, she says skills like relationship building and collaboration weren’t emphasised when she first reached the senior executive service, but are certainly an essential skill for leaders now.

“You’re making mistakes all the time, and you’re learning from those mistakes,” Hartland says. “Hopefully you’re not making as many mistakes as you’re achieving things. There’s a balance.”

‘They thought they needed to be more masculine’

Cosson was the first woman to reach the rank of Major General in the Australian Army, but she mightn’t have made that achievement if she hadn’t made a very public error as a Brigadier — when a lost DVD became known as the ‘Kovco affair’.

“I learned very quickly the importance of learning from that, [such as] who am I, what drives me,” Cosson says.

In a male dominated environment like Army, Cosson saw other female leaders changing their style because they felt it was expected of them.

“They thought they needed to be more masculine. Use language they normally wouldn’t use,” Cosson says. “I recognised that wasn’t my style.”

But adapting style when the situation demands it isn’t something women can ignore – citing her deployment on operations Bougainville in PNG, where she was in charge of the HQ.

“Stay true to myself but still adapt to changing circumstances and in Bougainville I did – we were a military force in an environment that had been warning for over 10 years, and our government of the day had chose that our force to go in there unarmed.

“And in order to be able to operate in that environment we had to have really keen situational awareness.”

It often seems that when big mistakes happen, it’s women who are left to give the apology. Bruniges was no exception. The death of Raymond Cho, who went into anaphylactic shock after he ate the biscuit baked by other students in a cooking class at Ashfield Boys’ High School was extensively canvassed by the media.

It was the most heart-wrenching public apology, Brunieges says. All the systems in place had failed.

“Your internal calibration as a leader about how you do that public apology about how you say sorry to parents who sent their child to school and didn’t come home was really a self-calibrating feature.

“It made me reflect on the decency and the humanity of what you have to do when you’re really under the pump in situations and you have to find a way through it.

“I don’t think we tell those personal narratives enough to help people through.”

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