Leadership – What do we expect of leaders and how do leaders rise to the challenge?

A leader holding flag, leading team, and showing direction.

Recently, my son asked me if I thought leaders were born or made. He had to participate in a classroom discussion about leadership and was surprised to see that he was the only one who voted ‘born’. This led to some serious reflection on my part, someone who does consider themselves a born leader and the risk and responsibilities that go with that.

I focused on this a lot this past week, both in my professional and personal life. Life threw me a few leadership opportunities and I felt compelled to fill them. I also saw discussions in social media that, to me, represented a lack of leadership, or at least a difficulty identifying who the true leaders were. In addition, I discovered first hand what can be achieved when leadership and collaboration come together.

I naturally find myself saying yes when asked to fulfil leadership roles, but before I know it, self doubt and fear of failure tend to creep in. I wonder if this is true of all leaders. I presume I will be criticised or I will upset people. But because I have been born this way, I try and ignore the negative self talk and say yes. And if I am not truly sure, I always seek guidance from my mentors, brilliant leaders who often help me traverse the way.

It’s fair to say that leadership is expected whenever there is a an issue or a challenge that needs sorting out. It seems to be a common human trait to seek leadership in difficult times, and to assume there will be leadership. Anxiety and despair can follow if leaders are not tasked with the role in a timely manner, and are not authentic to the role they have been chosen to fulfil.

Some common assumptions seem to be:

  • Leaders are there to pick up the baton and advocate when we falter
  • Leaders are unwavering when we are vulnerable
  • Leaders know they are leaders.
  • Leaders unite people rather than divide them.

But these points can be debated, and are not always true.

I remember watching the Beaconsfield mining disaster unfold on TV in 2006. It occurred in a small town in Tasmania, and the wait for the trapped miners to be found and freed was a desperate and public plight. It needed a leader, and a swift appointment at that. In a small town, and with international media coverage, somebody had to carry the responsibility. It fell to Bill Shorten, who was the Australian Workers Union national secretary at the time. Bill’s presence did seem to calm those watching the rescue attempt unfold.  In that moment, with so much uncertainty and despair, his role was crucial to wear the pressure of what could happen.

In the last 24 hours, The Hon Min for Health, Greg Hunt MP has announced national changes to the the mandatory reporting laws introduced by AHPRA. As a staunch and unwavering advocate for this change, I was thrilled to see such strong leadership for what was a very concerning contributor and barrier to doctor’s seeking help for mental illness. I met him once,  as part of a Grand Round at Peninsula Health, and was immediately impressed by how much he understood about this issue, the concerns arising from the medical profession, the accounts of families who had lost loved ones to suicide, and how he enacted change at yesterday’s COAG meeting. He was boosted by strong leadership around him, leaders from their respective camps such as The AMA, AMSA and doctor’s health advocates, including Dr Geoffrey Toogood, Dr Mukesh Haikerwal, AC, and myself. True change happened yesterday, and it was thrilling to be part of it.

What happens when an issue arises and there is no leadership?

Recently, a paper was published that examined data pertaining to the number of reports against Australian doctors based on age. It was written about in the Australian Financial review. In essence, an examination of reports against doctors revealed that doctors practicing in Australia over the age of 70 were 40% more likely to be complained about than their younger peers. This is despite the same article stating that many senior doctors provide high-quality care well beyond the traditional age of retirement and the study showed almost 87 per cent of doctors over the age of 65 were not subject to any complaints. In addition, the author states complaints about mental illness, substance abuse and problems with procedures were higher among younger doctors.

With the publication of one article, aspersions about the competency of all Australian doctors over 70 have been cast.  The Medical Board of Australia has announced it will introduce peer reviews and health checks on all doctors over 70. How this will occur and when has not been announced.

The fact that this decision has been met with general silence does not necessary mean acquiescence or consensus. But as reported by Medical Observer, it has been viewed as such.

For some reason, the idea of introducing mandatory competency checks on all doctors aged over 70 has gained near universal acceptance among medical leaders – at least if judged against their silence https://t.co/YEY3ytMnXt pic.twitter.com/FSWJOFb4jg


But, another way of  viewing this point is captured by this tweet:

I am concerned this demographic of doctors will be subjected to what seems to be age discrimination if leaders are not identified with haste, in order to provide calm and reason, as well as uniting a very valuable and experienced cohort of doctors. Notwithstanding this, the personal impact of this news on doctors who are approaching retirement sends a very clear message that they are not regarded very well by some of our medical peers, and especially not by regulatory bodies. They need a leader to unite them and oppose this argument.

Being a leader in your community

If you are a born leader, leadership styles and roles don’t usually stop at work. And I have taken a big step in that regard over the past month. Others may see it as small, but I am cautious about the responsibilities although I am excited about the challenge.

In the last month my 11 year old son told me he no longer wanted to play AFL football, something he had done since the days of Auskick at age 4.  As a mum who juggles work with ‘mum’s taxi service’ that would mean a lot more free time for me. But I really wanted him to continue, and help him over this hurdle in his very amateur career. After all, he plays with friends he has known since early school years and once on the oval, he enjoys himself.

His team was a new mix of boys and it needed some pretty heaving hitting volunteers to help out. Largely relegated to the regular roles of timekeeper, and provider of the oranges and snakes in past years, I decided to take a massive leap of faith and apply for the role of assistant coach. I did this based on the fact  I have followed AFL football for about 40 years, can manage a group of 11 year old boys and assist the coach who has the ability to teach them skills.

I had no idea how this news would go, or if I would be laughed at. But as it seems, It has been well received, and tomorrow I assume my new role, on the coaches bench. The first mum to coach for the club. Am I nervous? Yes of course I am! But am I a leader – absolutely. So I am pretty sure I’ll be all right.

And I’ll continue to pursue more leadership roles, after all I was born that way.

Dr Helen Schultz is a consultant psychiatrist, author and doctor’s mental health advocate. She is also a passionate member of the Western Bulldogs AFL Club. 

This post is dedicated to the true leaders in the recent fight to end mandatory reporting of doctors to AHPRA, the ones who stood out for me ;

Dr Mukesh Haikerwal, AC, Dr Geoffrey Toogood (creator of the #crazysocksfordocs campaign) and the Abbott family, who out of a time of sheer tragedy became the most inspirational leaders of all.




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