Leadership is synonymous with power and privilege, but with this also comes a responsibility to use it for good.
Disadvantage, racism, discrimination all stem from misuse of power or power imbalance.
Whether we like it or not, leaders are at the centre of this and can directly influence equity – positively or negatively.
All leaders will influence the outcome of inclusion and belonging regardless of your intent. I argue that leaders are obligated to consider how they use their power to address and cease racism and inequality in our society.
Leaders have power, and must use it for good
I personally tick nearly every privilege box – white, male, tall, married, educated, born in Australia etc. I never expected to be the CEO and founder of an organisation seeking to break down barriers for migrants.
Earlier in my career, my response to this privilege was guilt and submission. I felt shame about how others in my position/background had caused such significant harm to others.
This caused me to sit back and get out of the way, but also made me quiet.
I considered myself an ally of those less privileged, but I did not feel I had the right or responsibility to speak about discrimination or act to remove it.
Over time, I came to realise that my privilege put me in a position where I could act, and that this power remained with me regardless of how much I tried to diminish it.
In particular, when I started working at a refugee settlement organisation here in Sydney, I came to realise that I could be more than an ally. I could be an activist for change and use my privilege to break down the power differential.
When I moved into the settlement services section over 10 years ago, I had strong views about the professionalisation of social work and human services. I had just come from teaching courses on complex case work and mental health interventions at TAFE and had been working for several years with young people leaving institutional settings.
There were many staff at this organisation from a refugee background and I remember being concerned about the lack of qualifications against their names, but I simultaneously loved the picture of diversity.
I considered this workforce under-qualified, but was encouraged to take an alternate view and consider how the same opportunities were not available to all and that the development of expertise is less structured.
I was helped to realise that education was more accessible to me, that my understanding of expertise was deeply embedded in white frameworks. I was encouraged to see the expertise of mixed experience and the role I needed to take in creating spaces for those with less power or privilege.
Furthermore, in the last 7 years I have had the opportunity to work outside of Australia, particularly with refugees who have not yet found safety in a new country. One of these experiences was in Nauru.
In this particular organisation, we employed people out of the Australian settlement services to come and work with refugees living in the Nauru community.
My observation was that many were motivated to be there out of guilt about the Australian policy, and a desire to make people feel better and support them to get out of there. These were not necessarily bad reasons but what it led to was a saviourism that I had also witnessed in Australia.
This idea is rooted in a somewhat unconscious belief that we are rescuing a victim and this makes us feel better. What refugees needed most in Nauru was agency and support to survive through that experience.
As the leader of this program in Nauru, I inherited an opportunity to either perpetuate oppression or to give voice to the voiceless.
Interestingly, the general public of Nauru also became part of the focus as they too were somewhat powerless in this situation.
To do this effectively I had to work within the very structured system that existed and work within the rules to create access to power that could be shared with refugees and Nauruans.
No we did not make it stop but I believe we helped people live better through it by employing locals and Nauruans on our staff, by creating local leadership structures, by advocating for decent living conditions and the right to consultation.
As I say this, I realise there will likely be many questions and some disagreement with what I am saying however unfortunately this is not the place to explore that in further detail.
My central point is that we all need to be better at ‘seeing’ bias in ourselves and to understand the structures that perpetuate them and create disadvantage. In addition, I believe that leaders have a special and powerful responsibility to correct inequality as they have the ability to open spaces that realign power.
Leaders must adopt Humility
I was brought up with humility as a virtue, yet I needed to learn that it could not coexist with arrogance. The following quote helps to illustrate this:
“The humble man makes room for progress. The proud man believes he is already there.”
When you get into a leadership role, imposter syndrome sets in and you do your best to show everyone that you know what you are doing and are capable of the job. You don’t want anyone to find out you have no idea what to do!
I felt this even more when I started working in the settlement sector, where I had very little idea of what a refugee was and what their experiences and needs were like.
But I worked out that I didn’t need to know everything, that wasn’t my job.
I needed to be able to bring people together for an outcome.
In recent years I’ve taken this further to realise that leaders play an integral role in systems change, but humility is critical because without it you are likely to become part of the problem.
Humble leaders understand that they are not the smartest person in every room and that they don’t need to be. They listen to the views of others. They invite positive and negative feedback. They are interested in the expertise of others. They respect and encourage differences of opinion and are in search of the best ideas, regardless of where they come from.
Importantly, when things go wrong, humble leaders own and admit to their mistakes. When things go right, they turn the spotlight onto others.
Humble leaders are content in their own knowledge base and privilege, and don’t feel the need to compete with others for power and control. They are not trying to assert their own brilliance or competence but instead understand their role in bringing people together around a cause or vision. They know how to get the best from everyone and infectiously create cultures that encourage inclusion, equity and belonging.
Unfortunately, humility often gets a bad rap because it is sometimes linked with subservience or weakness or introversion.
However, psychological research indicates that humility is most closely associated with qualities of sincerity, modesty, fairness, truthfulness, unpretentiousness and authenticity.
Humble leadership requires strength, courage and patience.
In summary, humble leaders:
Credit the contribution of others in achieving success
Admit to and own mistakes
Listen to and accept constructive feedback
Adopt a growth mindset
Help and cultivate others
Humility is therefore an important condition in addressing inequality
Leaders must challenge others to do the same
I have had the opportunity to work in many varied contexts including small community managed organisations, government departments and multinational NGOs.
Unfortunately, we still living a world dominated by colonialist constructs of protection and consumerism.
One such aspect of this is something I refer to as the ‘Expert Complex’. I have seen this expressed in many of the structures that exist around refugee protection, international development and even how we work with community here in Australia.
It is the idea that because we are trained, have a university degree, have lived experience or come from a certain background, that we are an expert and automatically know what is best for the people we are empowered to assist.
This starts by ceasing to really listen and not spending time reflecting on systemic issues. This is why a commitment to humility and understanding power are critical for everyone.
Everyone can be – and is – a leader for change.
As part of running the program in Nauru, we deliberately employed local Nauruans and refugees living in Nauru.
As there were no locally-trained caseworkers and there were many refugees with complex mental health issues, we recruited expats who worked on a fly-in-fly-out roster due to the shortage of local housing in Nauru.
Originally, the local refugee and Nauruan workforce focussed only on community development and vocational parts of the program and not case management. However, we wanted to support the establishment of local welfare skills by providing Cert 4 level community services training to our local staff.
Due to conflict of interest, we could not put our refugee staff into case management roles, but we could put the Nauruan staff into this team. We decided to create casework support roles that would work with the expat teams. Two Nauruans were allocated to each team of 6 expats.
This was met with significant resistance from some of the expat staff as they argued that Nauruans were not capable of providing the specialised supports that clients needed. We pushed ahead anyway and used it as an opportunity to challenge assumptions.
Whilst not having any formal human services training, Nauruans brought with them local knowledge, local networks and cultural perspective that was invaluable in addressing local access to resources, managing politics and accessing community leadership structures that helped refugees to be treated with respect in the community.
Expats brought with them technical knowledge and experience that assisted with mental health needs and engaging with the broader system. Together they provided the perfect balance of skills needed to support refugees to have the best quality of life possible in Nauru and to be ready for what would come next.
Whilst not everyone’s views were changed, there was a very useful opportunity to challenge assumptions and to explore new ways of working that addressed inequality in that local context. This led to working closely with the Naruan authorities to undertake community asset mapping and accessing work, training and recreational opportunities for many refugees that was significant in assisting them to stay well.
We continue to work on this now as we bring teams together across borders and seek to ensure equal spaces for all voices across the organisation.
Essentially, I believe that those in leadership positions have voice. This voice needs to be used to influence change in others and lead a constructive conversation. It also needs to be shared.
Inclusion vs belonging
In migrant and settlement work, we often talk about inclusion or integration. I don’t mind these terms and prefer them to assimilation or settlement. However, they fail to capture a sense of equity.
Integration implies fitting-in as a multicultural and diverse community. For me, belonging better encapsulates a right to be part of a community and have mutual ownership within it.
We must be mindful that by seeking to address inequality, we are not inadvertently perpetuating it by overemphasising it or via our own actions, language and attitudes.
People in positions of leadership have a duty to create the conditions that will advance equity and belonging in our society. They will achieve this by working on personal humility, leveraging power and challenging others to do the same.