Real leadership means doing the right thing, even when it is hard and you feel alone.
When I took up the role of Head at my first residential College, I was only 35 years old. Nothing had really prepared me for the role or how to manage the situation I walked into. It was 2001 and a group of young men at College, lovely when they were sober, turned violent and destructive when they were drinking. When drinking, which was far too often, they disrespected property and leadership, they were intimidating and acted atrociously. The other students had had enough, however they wanted me to curb the young men’s behaviour, without kicking them out of College.
After spending time with each offending student, I made the decision to remove all seven from the College and banned them from ever re-entering the premises. The response from these students and their parents was outrage. Two sets of their parents threatened legal action, some of the other students, ironically, defended their right to stay. For weeks to follow, I felt fear grip the pit of my stomach, although I knew I had to hold my ground. One month later and we had a completely different College. The fear was gone and students were thriving.
Fast forward 10 years to a College wedding and reunion of my former students. As I stood talking to one of my students from a decade ago, I sensed a large person come up behind me. Whoever they were put their arms around me so tightly that I couldn’t move. I then knew immediately who it was. It was John. John was one of the students I had banned from College. He was the ring leader and his propensity for violence was frightening. With John standing right behind me, I was anxious, he then turned me around until I was facing him and I looked up into his tall frame. He was grinning. ‘I hoped I would see you tonight,’ he said.’ I smiled nervously. ‘I wanted to thank you for kicking me out of College all those years ago. It was the wake-up call I needed.’ I relaxed as he continued. ‘I learned through that experience that alcohol and I don’t go together. I am a different person now. I haven’t touched the stuff for 10 years.’ I was flabbergasted. He concluded, ‘I wanted to thank you for caring enough about me and the others to confront us about our behaviour. I would never have changed if you hadn’t and I would be a very different person today.’
Throughout my career, I’ve been faced with many situations where I’ve had to make a choice, to do the right thing or to look away. To do the right thing often requires a lot more emotional energy. It can create friction in relationships. Even more, it can mean standing alone and facing the criticism of your community. In a College like this one, my job is to create an environment that brings out the very best in people and gives them every opportunity to thrive. I have been told a number of times that I care too much. ‘Leave young people to sort it out themselves,’ they have said. ‘Don’t get involved in how they live their lives, be a figurehead leader and stand back.’ What I know for sure is that approach to leadership would make me miserable. It would also make this community far less than what it should be. In my experience, real leaders are those who care and always choose to do the right thing for the good of those they lead.
St Hilda's College is a living community and residential college on campus at the University of Melbourne.
We acknowledge and pay respect to the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation, the Traditional Owners of the land upon which our college is situated. We pay our respect to all the Elders of Indigenous students who call St Hilda’s home. We also acknowledge all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members of our community, the University of Melbourne, and the wider world.