How a physical challenge lead to self-belief and leadership nous for Dr Sardana Khan

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Tuesday, December 11, 2018 - 16:50
  • Australia Awards
  • Bangladesh

Dr Sardana Khan reflects on what she learnt as a scholar on an Australian Leadership Award (a precursor to today’s Australia Awards).

I feel privileged to be one of the Australian Leadership Award (ALA) Alumni. This recognition changed the direction of my life and reshaped my thinking. I can no longer be a passive spectator of what is happening around me. I still remember our first ALA conference in Canberra in early 2009. We were greeted by members of the Australian parliament and attended presentations by world leaders from various walks of lives. We all participated in the reflections and Q&A sessions, but soon after I started feeling like an imposter.

I was secretly thinking that I was not worthy of this elite group of visionaries from around the world and my selection was probably a happy cosmic accident. During an informal gathering that night, one of our ALA mates shared her humility and said that she felt like she had been selected by mistake. I immediately asserted that I felt the same way as I was overwhelmed to find myself among such great minds. The other scholars then also expressed the same feeling that night. Before we went back to our own rooms, we formally pledged in our small group that we will honour our privilege by living up to the ALA expectations.

A few months later, our Melbourne scholars attended a 3-day camping trip that included facing physical challenges, learning about team work and leadership peer mentoring. The physical challenges included climbing and jumping from 70 feet long wooden logs, relying on our team mates to pull the safety rope or walking on a ropeway (of equivalent height) having nothing to hold, just cooperating with our peer. For a very long time no one volunteered for either of these exercises, as none of us were physically active people (more intellectually or academically oriented). Eventually, one young scholar took the first attempt and succeeded. One after another, all the scholars except one took part in at least one of the physical challenges that initially seemed impossible. That one unworthy scholar who refused to attempt was me!

I had a serious acrophobia that I was well aware of and I have persistently resisted the encouragement and temptation to try these challenges. Once again I felt like an imposter and tried hiding behind chairs during the reflection at night when one of our ALA mentors Dr Troy asked who did not participate in any of the physical challenges. I was immediately spotted. I admitted most sincerely that I had no leadership quality and was the worst selection in the history of ALA. Dr Troy then explained that great leaders are aware of their strengths and limitations and they know when to lead, when to support and when to follow. A lot of courage is required to take the first step but it often takes even more courage not to follow the crowd or stand against the wind for what you believe is right. Even at that point I was thinking that he was just being nice to make me feel better.

He then acknowledged that I had relentlessly joined the groups that were holding the safety rope for those jumping from the 70ft log. Actually, I felt so guilty all day for not jumping myself that I did not take a break from holding the rope until the last person was done. I later found my palms severely bruised but I was too numb with embarrassment to feel that pain. During Dr Troy’s reflection I proudly started feeling that physical pain when my mentor finally convinced me that I had the leadership potential just as much as any other member of the team.

He explained that a true leader enables the followers as part of the team, achieves things collaboratively and does not compete for the individual spotlight. Leaders possess the quality to create and focus on vision of positive changes and inspire and enable people to achieve that goal. The changes a leader may initiate do not have to be grand gestures. The reason we were all selected for the Australian Leadership Award is that we all had demonstrated evidence of initiating selfless gestures of small change in our own society and professional field, on top of the academic excellence.

I came back from that camp with a brand new attitude and belief that no initiative of positive change is too small. A leader does not just overlook problems or walk away from trouble. A leader gets involved and takes initiative to provide solutions. It may sound clichéd but I truly started to believe that if I am not part of the solution, I will become a part of the problem. Some people create problems and the silent spectators allow those problems to escalate, but a leader confronts the problem and initiates a collaborative solution. So this is what I have set out to do.

In 2012, the last year of my PhD program at La Trobe University, I received the La Trobe Gold leadership award from the Pro-vice Chancellor for my contribution in the La Trobe residential student community. In 2014, I applied for and received a substantial World Bank grant for East West University, Bangladesh for a three year Higher Education Quality Enhancement Program to develop the research infrastructure in the university. I have also initiated and signed a research MoU with Victoria University of Wellington in 2015 on behalf of East West University Center for Research and Training. My teammates have successfully continued the initiatives even after I relocated in early 2017. These are some of the visible outcomes of my professional leadership initiatives in the academic community till date.

There are numerous other occasions where I have been privileged to be in the position of extending humble support to my junior colleagues or students in their journey to reach their own goals and potential. I have also been actively involved in numerous undocumented philanthropic endeavours donating my family inheritance and savings in supporting my inspired family members and friends to help solve the wicked problems in society (such as providing access to quality education and health to the children of disadvantaged communities). I take great satisfaction in making these apparently invisible differences just as a good citizen of the world and not for any recognition or spotlight. After being the lucky recipient of the prestigious ALA in 2009, I could no longer allow myself to be the passive spectator of issues and events in my journey in life.

Dr Sardana Khan attained a PhD in management at La Trobe University, Melbourne, 2009-2013. She is now a lecturer in business at Central Queensland University.

Australia Awards Scholarship applications open for most countries on 1 February 2019.