Fiona Smith As part of our monthly segment, Our Community Leaders - Great Australian Leaders in Focus which features the thoughts of some of Australia's great leaders, this month we feature Fiona Smith.

Fiona Smith

Fiona Smith was the chair of both the Equal Opportunity Commission and the Business Licensing Authority in Victoria and a great national campaigner on issues of equality, disability and human rights over many, many years.

In 2005, Fiona delivered an inspiring speech to the Communities in Control conference titled Leadership - Imagine the Leaders we Need and Deserve, which discussed the challenges facing community leaders. The speech is available on the website with all the other speeches from the Communities in Control conferences - at

Our Community started by asking Fiona Smith who she considered to be the three great leaders of our time? And why?

Fiona Smith:

  • Mary Robinson - for helping maintain the vigil for human rights in challenging times and doing it in a very accessible way.
  • Nelson Mandela - for demonstrating through incredible hardship that the fight for racial equality is a strategy that can and will outlast its opponents if we maintain our focus on universal human values and principles.
Close to Home:
  • Justice Michael Kirby - for being Australia's most generous public official with his time, intellect and personal honesty about being gay.

Our Community: What are the three attributes you would consider to be essential to a leader? Explain why they are important?

Fiona Smith:
  • Being driven by a clear set of values that are about respect and valuing all human beings;
  • Liking yourself and having confidence. As a leader, you invariably have to take a stand on many issues. When people don't like you for it, your inner being needs to be resilient.
  • Ability to work as a team and enjoy it. Australians have a healthy disrespect for hierarchy and you need to work in partnership to achieve your goals. No one ever achieves anything alone.

Our Community: What are the three greatest barriers to new leaders emerging in Australia? And explain their impact.

Fiona Smith:
  • Fear of failure - Some people say you only know you are getting somewhere when you can recognize your failures.
  • Systemic barriers to equality for disadvantaged communities meaning too few of their leaders emerge to tackle our community's inequalities.
  • Women's continuing inequality in the workplace, in the home and in the Board Rooms and public institutions of Australia.

Our Community: What advice would you give to a potential leader to take them to the next stage?

Fiona Smith:
  • Identify and connect with your community - no matter what forms the basis of it. For example, it could be geographic, gay, global, disability or race based.
  • Find out what issues matter to your community and help deal with them.
  • Always aim to work with people who are more talented than you and first learn to follow. You need to learn from other more seasoned leaders. This gives you insight into what motivates and binds followers; helps you see you must both lead and follow to succeed in your aims; and reinforces the importance of nurturing emerging leaders.

Our Community: Nature/nurture - are leaders born or bred?

Fiona Smith:

Both. Having good role models really helps too.

Our Community: What do you consider to be the three top leadership issues facing the nation?

Fiona Smith:
  • Reconciliation with indigenous Australian's that delivers dignity, respect and is sustainable.
  • Maintaining our safety measures for a just society including income support, industrial law protections and robust human rights and equal opportunity institutions and laws.
  • Working creatively to support our neighbours including Papua New Guinea, East Timor and Indonesia while adapting to the challenges of the emerging BRIC economies. BRIC equals Brazil, Russia, India and China.

Our Community: What insights have you gained personally on your leadership journey and how have they impacted on your style of leadership?

Fiona Smith:

I have learnt that if you are affected personally by something - like a road through your local park, being indigenous and faced with racism or having a mental illness, or as in my case, being a woman with a physical disability and daily encountering a physically inaccessible built environment - you can often articulate solutions better than the person who is not so affected.

I try and use my personal experiences to build bridges with other people whilst guarding against being typecast. I have also learnt that if you believe you and those around you can make a difference, a powerful force can be unleashed. This certainly helps to drive me.

Our Community: Who have been your own leadership mentors and how did they assist in developing your own leadership style?

Fiona Smith:

I've had many people from whom I've learnt a lot as well as some who have opened doors for me; given me challenging perspectives; and been generous with their time. I regard myself as a very lucky person.

I'd single out three women (amongst many women and men) that I have been inspired by:
  • Rhonda Galbally - for feisty advocacy for social and economic inclusion of people who are marginalized.
  • Julie McCrossin - for her humour and demonstrating with great flair how you can always act with integrity, be inclusive and fair.
  • Sister Veronica Brady - for showing that even within the most conservative of institutions, or environments, you can still be an agent for change.

Published August 2004