Leadership series – Rod Towney

Many of our clients want to work with us on leadership. So, we decided to start the year by asking leaders we know about the foundations and challenges of leadership.

We begin the series with an interview with Rod Towney. Rod is a Wiradjuri elder and the most senior Aboriginal staff member in TAFE NSW.

Rod Towney PSM: Leadership has its foundation in respect

Executive Coach Exchange Rod Towney leader
Rod Towney

Rod is a leader in two cultures, the Aboriginal culture and the non-Aboriginal culture. He traces his leadership back to his childhood, growing up on the Mission. He said that he always knew who his elders were and still knows who they are; so his leadership has its foundation in respect.

Rod said he believes that the characteristics of a real leader are that:

  • You must lead people in the right direction
  • You must not take backward steps
  • You must be courageous and assertive when you know you are right
  • People must recognise your honesty and fairness
  • You must be a good, solid role model.

Rod told us when he was a little feller, some of the senior men, the uncles, chose future leaders from amongst the young boys. The uncles took those boys into the bush where they learned about hunting, fishing and the weather. Not everyone is chosen to learn about cultural knowledge in depth: Rod was one those chosen and feels blessed to have been chosen in this way; he notes this means he has been given responsibilities for his people’s well-being. Rod said that an Aboriginal leader is a leader amongst equals.

Rod has had a remarkable career, being elected to the regional Aboriginal Land Council at a relatively young age and from there eventually becoming Chair of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council. He has also been a member of ATSIC and Deputy Mayor of the Dubbo City Council. As a Senior TAFE Manager, he works over the vast Western Region of NSW, from Lithgow to Broken Hill and up to the Queensland border. He focuses on students getting the best outcomes from their study.

Possibly the most remarkable thing Rod has done was to speak at the United Nations General Assembly, when he represented the NSW Aboriginal Lands Council in the Human Rights arena. Many people, when asked about a leader they admire, name Nelson Mandela. Rod met Mr Mandela and his advice has influenced Rod in his work with non-Aboriginal people. Mr Mandela explained to Rod that, in Australia, Aboriginal people would need to work with non-Aboriginal people because they were so out-numbered, a different situation from that in Africa. Rod said he took this advice to heart and tries to work effectively with non-Aboriginal people to achieve outcomes for the Aboriginal Peoples he represents.

We asked Rod about a person he admired, as well as Nelson Mandela. He named several people, including a School Principal at Wellington, Mr Cahill, who encouraged and supported the Aboriginal children to go further and do their best. He also said that the Uncles and Aunties were heroes in their family.

Most of all, though, Rod admires his mother and grandfather, who inspired him, instilling discipline and a strong work ethic. He said they told him he was as good as anyone and encouraged and supported him in his decision to go to university. Crucially, they protected him from being taken away, helping the children hide in the bush when people came to take them. For Rod, this meant that he grew up as a Wiradjuri man in his own culture and this has formed the foundation for his life.

Contributor: Dr Catherine Burrows is a Sydney-based executive coach, available in Wollongong, Newcastle, Western NSW and other areas by arrangement. Catherine is a Founding Partner of Executive Coach Exchange and the CEO and owner of Innoverum independent consulting.

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