Raised in rural NSW by a non Indigenous great aunt and uncle during the 1960s, Burney says that being subjected to persistent racism as a young child lit a fire within which has remained for life.
She describes one pivotal moment where she was approached by a non-Aboriginal woman in the street who told her, unprovoked: “You will never amount to anything.”
It was the cruellest lesson, but also the most powerful says Burney. It immediately triggered an unshakeable resolve in which she vowed to herself: “Oh yes I will.”
“I have thought of that constantly as a way of strengthening myself and maintaining my determination,” she says.
In 2016, Burney became the first Aboriginal woman elected to the House of Representatives following a 13 year tenure in NSW Parliament where she was also the first Aboriginal person to serve.
It took Burney’s tenacious spirit, passion and ultimate conviction to break through the ranks and emerge one of Parliament’s most senior and respected leaders and a vital champion for Indigenous and women’s rights.
Speaking to a packed room at Criterion’s Public Sector Women in Leadership Conference this morning, Burney shared some sage advice for aspiring female leaders in politics.
“I turn 63 on ANZAC day, so I’m getting to be someone who can reflect back on my life and the type of experiences I’ve had and hopefully impart some wisdom,” she light-heartedly explains.
For Burney, the recipe for success in leadership is straightforward.
“As a woman, as a feminist and as an Aboriginal woman—the most important attribute is compassion” as well as “loyalty and grace” she says. “these traits make you a richer, fuller person”.
This approach will also change the course for those you lead, she says. “The decisions you make when you’re in Parliament or in the workplace affect others. And those decisions must be made whilst thinking of the affect they will have.”
Compassion came to Burney, three days after the passing of her husband, Rick Farley in 2006. Looking out the window and feeling pretty pissed off with the world, she was struck by a sudden, poignant recognition.
“You can go forward cross, upset and regretful or you can go ahead with more love in your heart.” She chose the latter.
Burney believes that women tend to lead in a fundamentally different way than men, and that this leadership is central to good business and government.
“We do things differently, we really do,” she says. “I think women are much more consultative, much better at reaching consensus and much more inclusive.”
She urges women not to try and emulate the men around, but rather embrace themselves and their unique talents.
“The most powerful thing we have as women, is us. Get to know yourself, get to know your story,” and stop doubting your value and importance.
Below are Burney’s seven, most important life lessons:
listen to people as you might learn something.
Education is the key to success. Don’t stop striving to learn more and evolve as people and leaders.
You can’t win everything– but always keep trying. When you do lose, lose gracefully.
You are not infallible, you are human. Try to aim as high as you can, but don’t put unnecessary pressure on yourself.
Remain true to your goals and what you’re trying to achieve.
look after yourselves—so often we as women put everything before our health. If you don’t look after yourself then you can’t be good for anyone else.
Don’t be dispirited about the slow pace of progress. Don’t lose sight of your goal. Mentor younger women in the workplace; you’ve had shoulders to lean on, and now you can return that favour.
Photo credit: Tanja Bruckner