Prominent female professors share their advice on leadership

6 March 2020
A candid conversation with top Sydney academics
What makes a good leader? Eight University of Sydney's leaders, who also happen to be women, share the view from the top - and the advice they'd offer aspiring female leaders.

They pose in the 2020 International Women's Day #EachforEqual stance, symbolising how individuals can actively choose, in everyday actions and thoughts, to challenge stereotypes, fight bias and celebrate women's achievements. 

Professor Sarah Young

Head of School, School of Medical Sciences

A good leader is someone who has the drive and determination to make a positive difference to an organisation. You need to have a clear vision, a purpose and rationale for everything you do and you need to communicate this effectively. You need to be able to focus on what is best for the organisation as well as having an eye on the detail.

My approach is to be strategic and have a strong focus on what needs to be achieved for success. I have an energy and passion to make a difference. I’m not afraid to make a decision and act on it, however I’m not rigid in my approach. I also want to see everyone reach their potential and this is one of the most rewarding aspects of the job.

Being a leader can be challenging but it’s also hugely rewarding. It’s my experience that women often have skills that match what is needed for leadership, but don’t always have the confidence to step up into a leadership role. I’d really encourage any women thinking about this type of role to take up opportunities when they arise and not wait to be asked to do it. You’d be surprised how rewarding leadership can be.

Associate Professor Juliette Overland

Associate Dean (Student Life), University of Sydney Business School 

I’m a classic over-thinker, but it does make me very reflective in my approach to leadership. I’m regularly thinking about how I can improve, and how I can help others to perform at their best. 

In my experience, the best leaders are those who are adaptable, and who focus less on their own preferred style of working and more on enabling their team members to work most effectively, however that may be. Some team members like to work very closely and collaboratively, while others prefer to take a more independent approach - it requires a lot of trust, but so long as we all communicate well and work towards the same goals, there is no need for all team members to work in the same way.

Not all women have the same leadership style, and there is no “one size fits all” approach to being a good leader. It’s important to be authentic in your attitudes and behaviours, and to work out what your own personal leadership style might be, but you can certainly take inspiration from others, as well as being aware of behaviours you would like to avoid.

Professor Jennifer Potts

Head of School, Life and Environmental Sciences

The most inspirational leaders in my career have understood the importance of excellent communication (including listening). As leaders, we often have to make difficult decisions with which not all will agree. Listening to concerns and clearly communicating the reasons for a decision can enable colleagues who don’t agree to at least understand.

If you aspire to a leadership position, make sure you have excellent mentors who will give you honest and helpful feedback, and encouragement. When considering putting yourself forward for a role, focus on how the role fits with your strengths and the positive impact you can make.

Over the years I have taken opportunities to learn from others in leadership positions and sought opportunities that provided a trajectory toward leadership; if I enjoyed something, and received good feedback from colleagues, I took the next step (I certainly didn’t set out to be a Head of School).

Professor Annamarie Jagose

Dean, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences

Contradictory things combine to make a good leader: vision coupled with an eye for detail; confidence tempered with humility; empathy paired with resolve; clarity and consistency combined with imagination; action and change plus self-reflection.

Slightly to my surprise, I find I don’t need to be liked; I need to measure up to myself at the end of every day. I also like to work in a team, enabling others and learning from them.

I get up an hour earlier than I used to so I can fit everything in, and I have a good off switch. I try to make good calls on where to expend my time and energy. I also have fun in my role – I’m endlessly interested in people and what makes them go. 

If you aspire to be a leader, don’t overthink it. Leadership can be exercised from anywhere in the room and people will already be noticing your capacities for collaboration, teamwork, problem-solving and influence. Who knows? You might already be a leader.

Professor Robyn Ward

Executive Dean, Faculty of Medicine and Health

Be energetic, focused and consistent. Lead like it matters – leaders need to be bold and clear. Achieving a balance of stability and drive can be difficult, but my energy and mindset combined with discipline and consistency ensure we are closely aligned.

Leadership style doesn’t necessarily follow gender lines, but I’ve seen traditionally masculine traits such as steely resolve praised in male leaders but judged in women. I’ve also seen compassionate male leaders regarded as well-rounded, and empathic female leaders perceived as weak.

Change is not a spectator sport, it requires psychological and personal commitment and needs to be implemented with a realistic, attentive, courageous, long view. It’s important to be adaptable and aware of how cultural norms and personal biases can influence decision making

If you aspire to be a leader, it’s quite simple: don’t ask other people to do what you wouldn’t do yourself. You must walk the walk to lead and influence.

Professor Robyn Dowling

Dean, Sydney School of Architecture, Design and Planning

My style is distinctive because of who I am rather than because I’m a woman. I’m collaborative and people-centred. I seek the opinion of others and welcome discussion. However, my experiences as a woman who has worked across various university segments do help me attune to diverse perspectives.

Change is challenging in any environment, especially in an institution with a 100-year history. Good communication is crucial, and in particular ensuring everyone understands the reasons for change, its benefits and costs.

I see my appointment as the culmination of 100 years of female leadership in the school: the four women among our original graduating cohort of eight, the talented female architects from our school found throughout the profession; the fantastic women within the school over that 100 years, and our diverse students. 

If you aspire to be a leader, acknowledge that achieving career aspirations takes time and may be more haphazard than you prefer.

Professor Rita Shackel

Associate Dean, Education, Sydney Law School

Leadership is about respect, mentoring and nurturing others. The essence is creating opportunities for others to shine. As women, our approach to leadership is infinitely varied. I reflect on how I lead as a woman and how I can build positive relationships with other women and promote gender equity across all spheres of women’s lives.

Change often comes through careful preparation and working with others. It demands hard work, patience, courage and passion. 

Ethics are vital in the 21st century workplace, along with independent, critical thinking, agility and cultural awareness. It’s important to widely harness interdisciplinary knowledge, practice and skills.

If you aspire to be a leader, believe in who you are and what you can give. Know your values and understand your boundaries and those of others. Pause and think but don’t be afraid to feel – both intellect and intuition are essential.

Professor Dianne Wiley

Head of School, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

I’m always thinking of ways to direct, support and encourage staff and students to achieve the best and most important things for our world, our University and themselves. In my experience, women often take a more holistic approach to leadership that includes thinking about the whole person and work-life balance.

I am a passionate believer in strategic planning, in attaining a shared understanding right from the start about the necessary outcomes and the likely roadblocks. It’s about designing a simple process, thoughtfully and regularly monitoring progress, and making sensible and simple adjustments along the way.

I’m looking to build networks with the best industry, research and education partners around new, sustainable, energy-efficient and ecologically friendly ideas, technologies and processes.

If you aspire to be a leader, follow your passions and don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone to do interesting things that have the potential to make a real difference.

Feature Image: Mikala Dwyer, The Garden of Half-Life, 2014 (detail).