by Hannah Tattersall
Standing in front of Parliament House in Canberra in 2015, Australian of the Year Rosie Batty dedicated her award to her son Luke, killed by his father in a violent incident the year before. “He is the reason I have found my voice and I’m able to be heard,” she said.
The tragedy experienced by Batty is horrifying and something most of us are unable to identify with – but her voice has indeed been heard. Batty has become an influential campaigner against family violence, through The Luke Batty Foundation, which she closed earlier this year, and as chair of the Victorian government’s Victim Survivor’s Advisory Council.
As one of the 2018 The Australian Financial Review 100 Women of Influence, Batty joins a host of women who have overcome periods of hardship to rise to positions of influence.
This year’s 100 Women of Influence, presented by Qantas, is unveiled on Tuesday. The list features women working across a spectrum of industries demonstrating a strong sense of commitment to a cause: from Ronni Kahn, whose company OzHarvest has partnered with United Nations Environment to host events across the country to raise awareness about the alarming rates of global food wastage, to White Rabbit Gallery founder Judith Neilson, Emma Johnston, Dean of Science at the University of New South Wales and author, journalist and broadcaster Tracey Spicer, who has dedicated the past decade to amplifying women’s voices and broke the first #metoo stories in this country.
The 100 Women of Influence were selected with the help of executive search firm Korn Ferry and a highly respected panel of judges, including two previous overall winners of the award, Ann Sherry, executive chair of cruise company Carnival Australia, and Moya Dodd, lawyer and soccer official. The other judges were Mark Scott, secretary, NSW Department of Education, Barry Irvin, executive chair, Bega Cheese, Paul Zahra, retail adviser and diversity advocate, Sam Mostyn, director of Sydney Swans, Vanessa Hudson, chief customer officer of Qantas, Financial Review Chanticleer columnist Tony Boyd, Financial Review managing editor Joanne Gray and Sally Patten, editor of AFR BOSS magazine.
This year’s list was chosen from a record 850 entries, a large increase on the 370 received in 2016, the last time the awards were held.
Jacqueline Gillespie, senior client partner and head of leadership development at Korn Ferry, says hardship can play a significant role in shaping leaders.
“It often helps galvanise their core values and their sense of purpose. The other thing it does is broadens perspectives and creates more meaning about things that happen,” shesays.
Entrants this year were asked to demonstrate the competency of self-leadership (courage, resilience, self-development) through challenges and hardships.
This doesn’t mean women who had not experienced hardship scored less but it does perhaps explain why a large number of women disclosed stories of overcoming adversity on the way to where they are now.
“The stories of these women’s journeys were really compelling and quite important to their journey as women of influence,” Gillespie says.
“I do think people see themselves more holistically in the workforce, so they kind of bring all their experiences to bear as leaders and that includes what happens to them in their personal journeys as well.”
A 2014 Centre for Creative Leadership study of hardship concluded there are many lessons that can be learned from adversity, including self-knowledge, sensitivity and compassion, limits of control and flexibility.
Because hardship experiences are not intentional, they act as a “wake-up call” to look inwards and decide what is important for one’s life, the study found.
For Batty, throwing herself headfirst into a cause gave her a reason to get out of bed again.
“I’ve always wanted to make a difference in my life,” she tells The Australian Financial Review. “I didn’t know what that looked like or what that would end up being, but I’ve always had a drive to make a difference and [the belief] that my life should count for something.
“Yes, busyness is a distraction, but it’s also giving you purpose and meaning and direction, and when you lose your child, you’ve lost all of your meaning and all of your purpose in your life and the direction you were on as a mother. I feel very privileged and indeed lucky that as a white, privileged, well-educated woman, I was given the opportunity to be heard.”
In a business environment, the ability to overcome adversity, which helps build leadership characteristics such as resilience, self-awareness and a broader perspective on problems, can be useful in times of layoffs, budget cuts, mergers and acquisitions or corporate scandals.
But more generally, it often gives people a sense of what they care about, Gillespie says.
At 23 Nataly Tormey was in hiding, protecting her two young daughters as she escaped a violent relationship. Tormey, who is also on the 100 Women of Influence list, wanted to make a difference not only to her own life, but to improving access to first aid for those who were unable to afford it.
Three years ago she founded The Parentmedic Movement, a global community of parents, doctors, nurses committed to educating parents about child first aid, sleep and safety.
“There is this really wonderful shift around people, and women especially, using hardship and translating it into a viable mission or business idea; of women going through rough patches and coming out the other side saying, ‘You know what? I want to make a difference in people now going through that’,” she says.
Shukufa Tahiri was separated from her father when she fled civil unrest and fundamentalism under the Taliban in Afghanistan at the age of six.
She spent the next six years in Pakistan in a refugee enclave, before reuniting with her father in Australia in 2006 at the age of 12.
Now a policy officer with the Refugee Council of Australia, she says she wouldn’t describe herself as someone who has experienced terrible suffering, but she does recognise her ability to identify with people who may have gone through something similar.
“For me it was defined in the sense that there were policy issues that I could take on and work on in the sector to improve the lives of people around me: people who are more marginalised than I have been. There is a sense of familiarity in that. You can connect with the sense of injustice that they’re feeling,” she says.
Gillespie says authenticity is what makes a leader someone people can connect to. “That shows up in lots of different ways, but certainly it’s about understanding the leader better and knowing what they care about, what drives them, what their passions are, what their interests are.”
Liz Dawes, who founded the Robert Connor Dawes foundation after her son passed away from brain cancer in 2013, says, “being a leader feels natural for me, but being a real person is important”.
Five years on, she has expanded the charity to be the biggest paediatric brain cancer foundation in Australia and has been crucial in lobbying the federal government to secure funding for a disease which kills more young people than any other cancer.
“We have so many people volunteering, helping, and I think they feel connected to what we’re trying to do.”
Dawes says talking about her son is part of celebrating him. “I knew the day he died that was never going to get easier and it hasn’t. But we’re channelling his positive energy into doing something, hopefully, that will make a difference.”
The winners of each of the 10 categories and the overall winner will be announced at a gala dinner in Sydney on October 17.
To view the full list of the 2018 100 Women of Influence alumni, please click here.