In The Uncomfortable Spotlight – Reflections on Leaders Forum 2017

With only a few weeks until graduation, I have been reflecting on my year in the 2017 Leaders Forum. It’s been intense, inspiring, depressing, and confronting. My place in the program has been thanks to the Hugh Williamson Foundation, with costs covered for a participant from the Arts & Culture sector.  After 8 months of learning, I have more questions about myself and the ways I can be a leader than ever before. The very ground from under me is shaking and I do not like it one little bit.

I recently saw a Ballarat National Theatre production of “Daisy Pulls It Off” – a lighthearted romp set in a British boarding School, satirising Enid Blyton and the like. It featured the reliably fine performance of my fellow Leaders Forum participant Liana Skewes, and centred around the arrival of a new student whose entry to the prestigious school was via a scholarship. I don’t know about Liana (Leaders In Action Scholarship), but throughout this year I have often felt every bit “the scholarship girl”.

Upon reflection, I can see parallels of the program days to my high school experience in a small country town. I felt “odd” throughout my teenage years – I was considered neither beautiful nor thin; I wore unusual clothes; I played a brass instrument; I listened to alternative music; I hated sports; I loved reading and writing poetry; I hated drinking alcohol; I had very few friends, and even those I did have, I often lied to to get out of hanging out with them because I preferred the company of my parents.

I was given an outspoken confidence in myself from my family, which means that in situations where conformity is required (like high school), I came across as oppositional – a Bitch if you will.

I have been called a bitch many, many times.  I quickly learnt that my worth was in my intelligence, individualism and determination and that this was threatening to people. So I took the label and embraced it. This is a coping mechanism designed to allow me to not be vulnerable – because experience taught me that “good” girls get used and abused.

One of the things this program has encouraged us to do is be more self-aware. And our work with Gary Trotter on our LSI profiles proved to me that I have a tendency towards Oppositional modes of working, combined with almost no tendency to require Approval from others.

And it suits me just fine to be the “odd one out” at Leaders Forum, with the mantle of “the artist” falling comfortably upon my shoulders. Because, I was the only artist in the room (and not because I am a bitch),  it was my obligation to do that which artists are best placed to do for our society – to ask hard questions, to push boundaries, to confront, and to entertain.

But this way of working – as my mentor Tony Stone rightly points out in our meetings – is destructive – and so my challenge for the future is to find more constructive ways of challenging others. And to face that, what I thought of as my personality, is actually a hard bitchy shell that I have developed around myself. If I want to be a truly authentic leader, I must allow people to see within that. That’s the terrifying part. Luckily the LF program also equips us with some skills and methods of doing that. But it’s still soul- destroyingly transformative work that I now feel compelled to do.

This program is very good at shining great big spotlights onto parts of myself that I was very happy pretending didn’t exist. Another one is my own privilege.

Firstly, I have never before felt so aware of the fact that I am poor. It was the small, seemingly insignificant moments – the conversation about house prices which focused solely on homeowners and investment property; the less-than-positive analysis of our very decent hotel accommodation during our overnight stays; the times I had to remind people that not everyone brings home a wage over $600 a fortnight; me needing lifts to venues because my family only has one car; people chatting casually about their latest overseas trip; the times I have to explain that my work as a theatre-maker is largely unpaid at current, and my work as a mother to my two preschool aged children is largely unrecognised. This scholarship girl felt like everyone could tell the “business attire” she wore was from an opshop, and that she was counting the coins in her wallet to see if she could afford to get a hot chocolate.

Secondly, we as a group are have an ingrained privilege that was so obvious at times it felt embarrassing to be a part of some kind of weird disadvantage tour group. Being part of a group of (predominantly) culturally and linguistically mainstream middle-managers from a large regional city alerted me to my own understandings of class and how disadvantage plays out in our community. This year, we have learnt about a range of social problems from health, to homelessness to crime. I kept being surprised by some of my fellow participants simplistic understanding of complex social problems that stem from disadvantage. Surely increasing exercise participation rates merely needs investment in a nifty little points system at local supermarkets, or food security can be solved by pitching in some cash to run a food market? But it felt all too close for home to me, because I am only one medical incident or unexpected bill away from not knowing where my next meal comes from.

But mostly, I was intensely aware that I have many, many things to be thankful for that others go without. My education, my mainstream culture and language, my family support, my health, my one car, the roof over my head, and the fact that I am on this leadership journey in the first place.

Participation in this program is a privilege. Having a job which enables you to pay for this program is a privilege. Having any job is a privilege.  Having the self awareness and education to even apply is a privilege. And so I do feel incredibly lucky to be involved – lucky that my life is just privileged enough for me to make a difference to others who are not as well off as I.

How I can do that in my current situation, I don’t yet know. But working on being my best self is the place I’m going to start.


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