Believe you can make a difference

Professor the Honourable Dame Marie Bashir insists that she had no aspirations to leadership, yet she is an exemplary and universally respected leader who exudes grace and charm. Dame Marie was the guest speaker at the annual Tenison Woods Education Centre Dinner (TWEC) held in Maitland in June.  

The TWEC community was delighted to welcome Professor Marie, and she returned the compliment, saying, “It is a joy and a privilege to be here with you, among so many warm and wonderful faces.”

Dame Marie shared her “idyllic childhood”, growing up in Narrandera and feeling that life was practically perfect. She has fond memories of the town’s Aboriginal children and envied them their freedom; “no shoes, and sometimes riding bareback to school”. She learned to play the violin as a child at the local convent school where the parish priest listened to her practise. He told her she played well but asked her to learn “Danny Boy”. The ‘PP’ was Fr Patrick Hartigan, the renowned poet also known as ‘John O’Brien’.

As she grew older Dame Marie’s ambition was “to marry a man on the land and have lots of children and raise wool and wheat.” However, tertiary education took her to Sydney and the beginnings of a highly successful career in medicine. She spoke warmly of her time at St Vincent’s Hospital, where the philosophy of care for all echoed her own. “We hated to go home from work,” she said. “Can you imagine?” 

The promotion of improved mental health became a passion of Dame Marie, and her work in this area was just one of the reasons for her being named a Dame of the Order of Australia in 2014.

Dame Marie highlighted the importance of education in her story, stemming from her parents’ championing “the highest education you can have…use it to cross the road to help anyone in need”. She is well aware of the Josephite story, and said that the work of “Fr Tenison Woods and Mary MacKillop must raise the spirits of all who might despair”.

Dame Marie’s topic was promoted as “Leadership” and she expressed some concern that she had not addressed it sufficiently. However, woven through her narrative were pearls of wisdom which arose from deep reflection upon experience. Speaking of her work in medicine, she said, “There was so much reward in just doing.” That might be said of her life as a whole, a life being lived in ways that daily make a difference in the community.

In the words of Dame Marie Bashir AD CVO, a good leader

  • believes s/he can make a difference.
  • never becomes complacent.
  • is a lifelong learner.
  • finds sources of personal replenishment.
  • recognises and nurtures wisdom.
  • is mindful of the cost to the disadvantaged of what s/he might be proposing.
  • supports those less senior.
  • never ignores situations involving conflict.
  • never gossips or betrays a confidence.
  • recognises that supportive mentoring can be priceless.

Words of Professor the Honourable Dame Marie Bashir AD CVO

Tenison Woods Education Centre

Friday, 17 June 2016 at East Maitland

It is indeed a deeply felt privilege to have been asked to join you all tonight, at this most valuable education centre, which since its inception, has been enriching people and indeed the community beyond, through education in the widest sense. These are certainly Christian values inspired and driven by the supreme humanity of Jesus Christ and enriched also by the glorious models of both Father Tenison Woods and Sister Mary MacKillop and the Sisters of St Joseph.

At the outset may I affirm my deep respect and gratitude also to the traditional custodians of this region, to their ancestors and descendants, indeed to all Australia’s Aboriginal people who nurtured this great continent for tens of thousands of years.

It is a great pleasure to join you for this special gathering, at which I have been asked to provide some perspectives on leadership.

Whilst leadership is a word, a concept which conveys to me very complex implications, it is indeed appropriate that we meet on this issue — on the one hand, you, who are nurturing the critical components of leadership, and on the other hand, myself, who, most extraordinarily, had the honour 15 years ago to be appointed to the oldest, historically speaking, leadership position in the nation established in the days of the first settlement in Australia, 228 years ago.

It is not easy to speak about leadership, for in recent times idealists have tended to become cynical and disappointed about what constitutes genuine leadership, particularly in the international environment, and especially when the destiny of millions of people is at stake.

However, good leadership models — often the finest models of leadership — emerge quietly when unobserved, and I am sure that you will have experienced this already from interactions during your own journey through life and within your school community — principals, teachers and fine role models amongst your peers − and of course among family members also. And certainly your own efforts towards spiritual understanding and the appreciation of scholastic excellence and intellectual development. These are all powerful ingredients which must never be underestimated.

I would like to summarise the issues I consider important for people destined for leadership.

  1. Be positive. Expect to do well and to be fairly treated on your merit and efforts, if you consistently complete your expected task. In Australia, we should not expect gender bias, it is significantly less than a decade ago, and diminishing rapidly — even in our armed services.
  2.  Provide, and expect in return, open, clear, and informed communication. One should also be mindful of the disadvantages as well as advantages and costs of what you are proposing as leader.
  3.  Never gossip, nor share confidences or comments about a colleague. There is a high risk of being quoted later, possibly in a gravely distorted form, which can be very destructive to team cohesion.
  4.  Whatever one’s age, or current role in life (including retirement), continue a journey of learning, whether through informal continuing education or through postgraduate courses. Listen to “the little people”, I would tell my medical students. People from minority groups can educate you informally on key issues long before you see them published in special reports or in newspaper articles.
  5. Today it is also essential, whatever one’s professional role, to be aware of key issues and attitudes prevailing in the economic sector of the wider community.
  6. Encourage and support peers and junior team members. Good leadership will nurture their professional development and psychological equilibrium, and contribute to the strength of the team or organisation in which you are involved.
  7.  Provide or arrange a mentor relationship for those young people who, for a variety of reasons, may not yet have developed an adequate level of self-confidence. This particularly applies to colleagues from an indigenous, refugee, new immigrant or disability background. Don’t be reluctant to recognise that a good leader can be a caring and nurturing person. And also, that success and promotion can be very anxiety-provoking for some, and therefore supportive mentoring can be priceless.
  8. Good leadership does not ignore situations of conflict within the team. It is important to conduct sensitive interviews to identify the real problem. If the situation has become complex and destructive, seek the assistance of someone skilled in conflict resolution. If a colleague leaves to go on to a superior appointment, this reflects well on the leader and the team, but if someone leaves who is disgruntled, exit interviews, conducted with respect and confidence following resignation, can be constructive and alert you to developing concerns.
  9. Caring for one’s own health and emotional wellbeing is all important. That includes no smoking and a healthy diet. Contain stress levels. Enjoy looking good.
  10.  Make sure you have some joy, something to turn to during periods of major stress and mounting work responsibility. A truly trusting friendship — just one — is life-enhancing, as are the cultural riches of music, the theatre or sport.

 I am sure that each of you will find your own unique qualities which will contribute to good leadership.

 My best wishes are with you all as you continue to enrich our society especially through your nurturing and education of members of the community and as you continue to face the challenges ahead.

I thank you all with deepest feelings.

The Tenison Woods Education Centre, under the auspices of the Sisters of St Joseph, Lochinvar, is the adult faith formation agency of the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle. Please visit the diocesan website. See a gallery of images at

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Tracey Edstein Image
Tracey Edstein

Tracey Edstein is a member of the Raymond Terrace Parish and a freelance writer with a particular interest in church matters.

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