Leadership series – Cindy Berwick

Cindy Berwick is the President of the NSW Aboriginal Education Consultation Group Inc. For 40 years, the NSW AECG has been the peak advisory body for all levels of education for the Aboriginal Peoples of New South Wales. It has local members spread out across 127 communities and its grassroots structure is key to its success. Cindy is a Ngunnawal woman descending from the Bell family in Yass.

Executive Coach Exchange Cindy Berwick
Cindy Berwick

Cindy Berwick: Listening, consulting and being open to new ideas are at the heart of leadership

Cindy believes that what makes a true leader stand out is their ability to bring people along on the journey. She says a leader needs to be able to create a vision which is forward-looking and focussed on the greater good and not on the self. Cindy added that a leader must also have integrity, strong principles and value humanity.

Creating the vision is only the beginning, however. Cindy says the critical role for the leader is make sure that everybody can see the vision the leader has created and accept it. Only then can each person involved work towards the vision.

The primary role of the NSW AECG Inc. is to promote active participation by Aboriginal people in the consultative and decision-making process of education and training related matters. For this vision to be effective, there needs to be clear messages that people can understand. These messages allow people to accept the vision as their own and then work towards achieving it.

Consultation is at the heart of the NSW AECG. The NSW AECG Inc. has local, regional and state networks that enable effective communication. This allows an Aboriginal community viewpoint to be echoed throughout the organisation.

Working with a grassroots organisation requires significant effort and time being invested in consultation and discussion. For Cindy, this means having open channels of communication, where listening is just as important as talking – perhaps even more so.

When asked to talk about a leader who had influenced her, Cindy had a different approach from some of the other leaders we spoke to. Cindy said there were many people who inspired her, rather than influencing her leadership.

One person she mentioned was William Ferguson, a trade unionist who launched the Aborigines Progressive Association in 1937. He demanded justice, decency and fair play and he is sometimes called the Martin Luther King of Australia.

Mr Ferguson was one of the leaders who planned the 1938 Day of Mourning, to draw attention to the damage done to Aboriginal Australians by colonisation. Cindy spoke about the recognition of his work through a Day of Hope. She believes everyone needs a ‘day of hope’, not just Aboriginal people.

Cindy said, “I don’t know everything. That’s why it’s important to read and listen widely, be open to ideas and be inspired to keep going and achieve better.”

In conclusion, Cindy told us that a leader needs to get everyone on the same bus. Some people are waiting for the bus. Some are late for the bus. Others miss the bus. The leader needs to make sure, eventually, that everyone she leads ends up on that bus.

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.