Earlier this year you presented at the Australian Schools Women’s Leadership Summit in Sydney. What did you present on?
My topic was ‘Leadership as intentional acts of disruption’. I’ve been a disruptor all of my life (laughs). I use the word ‘disruptor’ not in a negative sense, but in a term of ‘don’t let people pigeonhole you’, ‘don’t let other people make decisions for you’, ‘make sure that you’re the author of your own professional pathway’. In schools, which are thought of as orderly, the young leader doesn’t think that they should be disruptive, they often think that they need to be the person who is ‘the good person’. But I’m challenging all people, be they male or female, – in this context it was females – to say ‘no, you must be the disruptor’. When you see things that need to be thought of differently, or you have a different point of view, have the courage and conviction of your own self to put it forward. Disrupt the status quo. When I was 21 and I went out for my first teaching job, I went interstate, I went to a more senior appointment. I disrupted what people thought a young graduate teacher should be doing. When I became a principal I had a six-week-old baby. I disrupted the idea that someone with a six-week-old baby couldn’t take on a principalship. I didn’t look like an independent school principal, because I didn’t come from the independent schools sector – and I’m thrilled that I didn’t come from the sector because it meant I was exposed to a much broader group of people. And that has influenced my leadership style, which has come to that promotion of diversity and equity and access for everybody. So it’s not the traditional pathway, I guess.
The idea of disruption is really the idea of challenging the things you see, challenge things you think are not right, challenge different ways of doing things, the different ways of expressing yourself, different opportunities for our young people and different styles of leadership – because one of my biggest issues is people trying to replicate leadership models. A one-size-fits-all type of leadership does not suit everybody. We live in a diverse country, we’ve got different types of students, we’ve got different types of schools and we need different types of leaders.
You come from a working class background – how did your pathway take you into independent schools?
When I was 17, my father took me down to Adelaide, three hours away, and dropped me off at a residential college. We didn’t know anywhere else to go, we didn’t have family; I was a country girl. When dad dropped me off, he said to me ‘Rosa, always remember you’re every bit as good as the person next to you, but don’t ever come home thinking you’re better than anyone’. I was in Mildura last week speaking at a LaTrobe graduation ... and I said to those young graduates, ‘with those words I’ve lived my life’, because I didn’t care where I went. [When] I was suddenly exposed to these so-called ‘privileged establishment’ families, Dad’s words were always in my head ... If you live your life with those words, you can do anything, so when I became deputy chancellor at Melbourne Uni, that’s a long way from being the kid of migrant parents in Port Pirie, but why should I not be able to? If I’ve got values, if I’ve got integrity, if I’ve got passion and enthusiasm, obviously some skills for what I’m doing – why should I not? And that’s the message I try to give students at La Trobe, the message I gave at the graduation, the message I’ll give in every speech I give...
I encounter people with a terrible sense of entitlement and privilege, I don’t have a lot of time for people like that. I have to deal with them, I have to work with them, but I don’t have any time for them. The more entitled you think you are, the less you appreciate things. They get very used to wealth and power and authority and think therefore things go their way all the time. I don’t have time for that. To my detriment at times, (laughs) but you are who you are and you’ve got to live your values and beliefs 100 per cent – you can’t just live them occasionally.
Tell us about your current role?
It’s an honorary role, so I’m also engaged in student engagement and professional partnerships. So my focus has been on developing international partnerships for La Trobe pre-service teachers using my connections in the wider international sphere. I take pre-service teachers and I facilitate them doing an international placement ... Why I love that is La Trobe has many ‘first-in-family’ students (first in the family to go to university) and one of the greatest pleasures that I have is providing those student teachers with opportunities that they might not otherwise have.
Leaving MLC must have been an incredibly difficult time for you. How did you get through that?
I have worked really hard on my own self-recovery, and I drew on the inner strength and the values I’ve had my entire life. Could I stand up, look myself in the mirror and be proud of everything I’d done? Yes, I could – and with that strength and the support that came to me from everywhere, nationally, internationally – anyone who knew me, knew that Rosa can stand tall, other people couldn’t and still can’t. That’s their issue. Then I had to work hard to say – ‘OK, am I a different person now that I’m not the principal? Actually, no, I’m exactly the same person. So how do I want to then live my life? Do I want to continue in education?’ It was a no-brainer, of course. I questioned how I could expand my influence in a wider setting. So now I work regularly internationally, in Spain, I’m off to Costa Rica next week, I’m working in Italy ... So when my life was disrupted, disruption actually suited me, because I’ve now kept opening new doors and life is fantastic. It doesn’t mean that there’s not a part of me that will always be hurt. But you have to be able to work with that, you can’t let that define you.
How has your work life morphed to where you are now?
It’s been five years since I left MLC and it does seem a world away. I think one of the biggest joys I have now is helping students from a very different socio-economic demographic. I’m a non-executive director on the Smith Family board, so I think this next stage of my career... I’ve worked with students who have been very privileged, there’s no two ways about it, so it’s been terrific to be able to contribute my expertise, knowledge and passion for education regardless of the sector, but at this time in my career I’m trying to give back to a community that needs education more than anyone does.
What do young leaders need to be focusing on?
The first part is to really understand their authentic self. That might sound textbook, but it’s not. It’s about saying ‘what are your non-negotiables in life? What are the values that you really hold dearly to yourself?’ Until you know those values, you cannot be a leader. And unless you disrupt you can’t be a leader otherwise you’re just maintaining the status quo – that’s not leading.
What else should potential leaders be thinking about?
Recognising your skill-set and recognising that leadership has managerial skills, technical skills but the most important one is relational skills, because unless you’re able to foster those really trusting respectful relationships with all your community ... nothing will fall into place. You can’t just exist on charisma, you can’t just exist on being a good staffer or analytic person. You have to have a whole set of skills, but the most important is respect and being able to foster trust in your community.
Away from your working life, how do you find balance in your leisure time?
I’m physically active, that’s my passion. I’m boogie-boarding down at Philip Island ... I ride and run, go to the gym. I also travel a lot. I’m passionately Italian and I’ve been spending part of each year in Italy and will continue to do so. I’ve been involved in some schools over there, which has been fun, in my parents’ home town.
As a school leader, I’d like to be remembered as... a principal who had genuine interest in each and every member of their community.
Someone who I really admire, is... Michelle Obama.
I’m arranging a dinner party, I can invite three people alive or dead, I’d invite... George Clooney, Michelle Obama and Liza Minelli.
While I’m flying around the world, I like to fill my time... people watching, and drinking espresso coffee, of course.
My most treasured possessions are my... books.