Country town girl to one of the world’s top principals

Thursday 8 September, 2016

Teacher, principal, policy writer for the Board of Studies, Officer (AO) of the Order of Australia for her leadership in education - these are only a few of the distinguished titles for Dr Margaret Varady AO. And as of 31 August 2016 at Warrane College, her latest title would have to be “Wednesday Night Guest”!

Originally a girl from a farm on New Zealand’s South Island, Dr Varady was selected in 2006 as one of the top 100 principals in the world – no mean feat in itself, but also an addition to many other accomplishments. She spoke to the boys about her leadership journey and what might help them as they embark upon their own careers. “The world needs really intelligent, wise and authentic leaders,” she started out.

Quoting the five stages of leadership by Theo Veldsman, she agreed wholeheartedly that leadership is not fixed, and a leader can present more than one leadership style during life. She also told the boys about how she moved through these stages in her work in education:

Stage 1 of leadership - “I can”

Dr Varady told the boys how the first stage of leadership deals with developing confidence, taking risks, and learning about your own self-worth.

“Growing up,” she said, “in that country town, I learnt to be a self-directed learner. I learnt that education can change lives – it changed mine – and I had really dedicated teachers at that stage (perhaps I didn’t recognise it then) but developed a love of learning through their academic focus... When I came across here, and worked in some comprehensive schools here, I think that  was the beginning of “I can”... Thinking ‘I can do this’, moving on, and I was off to see the world.”

Stage 2 of leadership – the “me focus”

Dr Varady went on to explain her experience of Stage 2 – which is where she had her own agenda, but in relation to others.

“When I took up being a head teacher, I was definitely very wobbly,” said Dr Varady. “Most people in teaching are promoted because they’re good teachers, but not necessarily good leaders... So that was the beginning of Stage 2 and I worked very hard... It was a “me focus”, but very much in relation to others.”

Stage 3 of leadership – “me: unique”

In the third stage of leadership, a person begins to recognise their own voice and that it is different from those of others: that it’s unique. Dr Varady experienced this stage when she worked for the Board of Studies.

“I wrote various policies and wrote various assessment tasks,” she said, “and I was the supervisor of HSC marking with a very large team of people. So I was beginning to develop my own voice... so that was coming up to the “me: unique” of Stage 3 - that I can do this, and perhaps I’ve got something that I can use to work with others.”

Stage 4 of leadership: looking at the “us,” not the “we”

It was becoming principal of Sydney Girls High School, as well as a ministerial appointment on the University of Sydney Senate and the Centennial Parklands Trust, that Dr Varady thinks helped her to get to Stage 4 in her leadership journey.

“I think that was very much the realisation that you can’t do it by yourself; that you need others,” she said. “It’s a shared future, and it’s a win-win that you’re after.”

Stage 5 of leadership –the common good for all humanity

“I have to say that I’m beginning to understand Stage 5,” said Dr Varady. “working in education in Africa is payback; working for other people is the most important thing to consider.”

Dr Varady said that the leaders who reached Stage 5 are the “Nelson Mandelas of the world” – the people who really are working for other people. She described this level of leadership as a higher calling, the ultimate goal, and the highest form of leadership, authenticity and maturity.

Developing one’s leadership skills

Dr Varady finished her speech by encouraging the boys to develop their leadership skills.

“You need to make sure that technically you are a knowledgeable leader...it’s easy to do,” she said. “But you’re not a wise leader; you’re not an authentic leader; and you can’t feed our heads and our souls; if that’s all you do.”

She continued: “So we need moral leaders. We need authentic leaders; visionary leaders that are inclusive with the ability to implement the changes that are needed. Responsible, creative, critical, trustworthy, optimistic so that we always have hope. Humble, with integrity, generous, inspirational so that they can light the flame within us. Reflective, and most importantly to understand the big picture - understand how the small components of whatever you’re dealing with all fit in together. Passionate, energetic and able to lift our spirits. And the final one is the important one: ethical leadership.”

As for discovering their own brand of leadership, Dr Varady encouraged the boys to look outside of themselves, including keeping an eye out for a good mentor.

“I think you should talk to others about what they think about your leadership style... It’s very difficult to see yourself – others can give you feedback. After you’ve done this, I think you work out your own philosophy, your own mantra, and your own belief about where you’re going in the world. You need to be able to articulate your vision and know your moral purpose.”

Dr Varady also told the boys to take intelligent risks, peak in their own time, aim for their personal best instead of comparing themselves to others, and constantly knowing themselves by asking ‘who am I, what am I doing, where am I going, and why’?

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