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Leaders come in surprise packages
Feb 27, 2014

Leaders come in surprise packages

Though she be but little, she is fierce

William Shakespeare

I was saddened today to hear of the death of my first high school principal, Sister Julian, who was headmistress at St Aidan's Anglican Girls' School during all of my high school years.   Sister Julian was my very first experience of witnessing first hand strong leadership, and I consider myself very fortunate that this experience was with a woman and one such as Sister Julian.

Sister Julian was, to be blunt, small in stature.  At 13 she seemed to me to be ancient, but was probably not much older than I am now.  She would have been considered technically blind, and it always seemed a small miracle that she got through school assemblies (where, I might add, you could have heard a pin drop), reading, as she did through thick glasses, with additional help from a magnifying glass.  As someone said to me 'she might have had poor eyesight, but nothing got past her'.

The Shakespeare quote above is not to suggest that Sister Julian was fierce in the strict sense of the word. She was a very gentle person.  She was small, yes, but quietly fierce in the sense that she knew what her values were, the values of the Sisters of the Society of the Sacred Advent, what was expected of her, and in turn what she expected of her staff and students.  She was dedicated to her faith, which guided her actions.  Always authentic, and trusted.  When I was a school leader, I, and the other prefects, knew if that we were troubled by what to do in a situation, she could be relied on to give us her opinion, but she always made it clear she was there to guide us, not to dictate to us, trusting that we would make the right decision, and stand by it.  

She spoke very softly and calmly, even when cross.  This alone is a valuable lesson for all leaders, as one had to listen very carefully to make sure you heard what was being said, assuring attention, and retention, of the message.

She did not instil fear; but I remember fearing disappointing her, such was the loyalty and respect she engendered. She took an interest in each student, remembering their names, and personal history.  Parents were always impressed by her ability, even with her limited eyesight, to remember, and engage on a personal level, with everyone with whom she came in contact. She cared deeply about all the students; truly empathetic and compassionate.  Rules were expected to be obeyed, but discipline was administered fairly taking into account severity as well as the personal circumstances of the student involved.  And she also knew when to literally turn a blind eye to minor infractions.

Years after I left school I felt the need to confess to her that I was sometimes taken out of class by a young novice, and fellow cat lover, ostensibly on important business, and we would skive off across and down the road to a lady who not only bred cats, but looked after abandoned kittens to help them be rehomed. Whenever new kittens were there, we would visit.  Sister Julian laughed and said she knew exactly what we were doing as we had to walk past her office to go out the gate, and she would watch us go.  She said that if she had thought it was affecting my school work she would have put a stop to it, but given that I was leaving class to do what she called 'community service' in helping to feed the poor abandoned kittens, and something I loved doing, she thought it was harmless and a secret she could keep.  She made me laugh that day, and I have never forgotten that and other valuable lessons in life and leadership from this extraordinary woman.

She will be remembered with great fondness by many women like me, who grew up at a school, lead by a woman such as this.  How lucky we were, to be able to have our first experience of leadership, and female leadership, with Sister Julian in that role.

Vale Sister Julian.  Rest in Peace.

Per Volar Sunata (born to fly upwards)