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Mona Shindy Talks Good Governance Through Commonplace Diplomacy

As a young engineer, retired ADF Captain Mona Shindy was one of three women to first serve on a Royal Australian Navy warship travelling to a warzone in 1991. Fast forward to the future, a warm and articulate Shindy gets candid about leadership, empathy, and starting conversations that matter.

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As a young engineer, retired ADF Captain Mona Shindy was one of three women to first serve on a Royal Australian Navy warship travelling to a warzone in 1991. Fast forward to the future, a warm and articulate Shindy gets candid about leadership, empathy, and starting conversations that matter.

Since the Report on The Review into the Treatment of Women at the Australian Defence Force (ADF) was tabled in Parliament and subsequent audits by former Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick AO in 2014, it was clear that the ADF was serious about its commitment to increasing cultural and gender diversity in the Australian armed forces. 

If we go back in time, women were first authorised to join the Navy in 1941 – mostly due to WWII – and the birth of Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service ensued (which was eventually incorporated into the Permanent Naval Forces in 1984 (Argirides A, 2005). However, service was often cut short; between 1941 – 1968 it was compulsory for women to leave the Navy after marriage. Historically, the typical functions permitted to serving women were generally administration / communications, medical, law and recruitment and training; women were not permitted to serve at sea or overseas until 1985, with combat roles only being permitted in the early 1990s.

Now retired, Mona Shindy recalls her debut on the HMAS Sydney, over 30 years ago – as a weapons electrical engineer, with two other female officers, a Doctor and Logistics Officer – making it a milestone in Australian military history as this was the first time women served in active duty on a warship.

“I felt so proud. My role was about maintaining the radars, sensor systems, combat systems, torpedoes, missiles etc. It was a very interesting environment at that time, women had gone to sea, we already had the first commanding officer of a non-warship at that time, but we had never had women serve on a warship that went to warzones. We lived in a converted boat locker, which was stored with bits and pieces for boats, three racks on top of each other and there was a little sink, so by the time we sailed the sink hadn’t even been plumbed. The ship’s gym was directly outside the cabin door, so we’d step outside our tiny cabin, and have to walk through to the gent’s gym to get anywhere… but it was great. It was all about getting women to sea. It’s much different now and we have more women serving and new ships’ designs cater better for serving women!” says Shindy.

After bursting onto the national stage as the winner of the 2015 Telstra Business Woman of the Year award, Shindy, now 55, belongs to a pedigree of female pathfinders in her profession, including; Captain Carolyn Brand and Commanders Allison Norris, Jennifer Daetz, Michele Miller and Robyn Walker.

If the challenges of gender in a traditionally male environment was not enough, Shindy specialised in engineering – which added another layer of complexity in the gender divide. According to a Women in the ADF Report, the percentage of women in each occupational group by service, very much reflects the same vocations available to women who started in the Navy over seventy years ago, with 47.9 percent in health, 38.8 percent in administration support, intelligence and communications at 30.7 percent with engineering at a low 6.5 percent. When discussing her career choice, Shindy says graduating with a bachelor of engineering was not a consciously challenged decision, but one that played to her strengths.

“I’ve always loved the sciences and did well in math, physics, chemistry so there was a natural tendency… Coming from a middle eastern migrant family, you get given two options when you’re a baby – be a doctor or engineer! My older brother did electrical engineering and joined the Navy – so in many ways his lead helped guide me,” says Shindy.

From a weapons electrical engineer, Shindy steadily climbed the ranks from assistant at sea, to a Deputy (looking after the weapons engineering department), to head of different departments at various stages, including, Program Director roles (sustainment of ships) and Director of Littoral Warfare, Head of the Guided Missile Frigate System Office, Strategic Adviser on Islamic Cultural Affairs and Director of the ADF College in ACT.  With a Masters of Commerce under her belt, as well as taking a year study sabbatical in 2016 to complete a second Masters in Politics and Policy – simultaneous to a Senior Officers Strategic Studies program (comprising of 52 hand-picked senior leaders from around the world), it’s little surprise that Shindy’s list of achievements made her a natural contender for the Business Woman of the Year prize in 2015. However, like all public accolades, the recognition Shindy achieved for a life-time of service was not without some detractors.

“There was a lot of commentary around me winning the award, some of it was about tokenism, the focus on me being a Muslim woman – some positive, but there was a lot of negativity.  My take was, I’m just a human-being for goodness sake! I’ve had a long career, with verified achievements so you know, to hear that negativity, that it somehow doesn’t count for anything because of gender or religion… As a human-being, it’s important to acknowledge that we all have unconscious biases, including me! We all tend to have particular world views, but part of being an effective leader is to challenge the logic of these biases – regularly. This means to consider things critically as opposed to just accepting blanket statements,” says Shindy.

Part of Shindy’s next phase of her career is heavily focused on critical enquiry and strategic planning around governance and policy; she now does the rounds as a Keynote Speaker and Author on strategic leadership, diversity, and inclusion.

According to Shindy, her experience in good governance and resolving conflict comes down to common diplomacy.

“Good relations comes from understanding the world in which we operate – to know the historical factors that lead to conflicts between nations.  It’s a privilege to have access to people who deal with conflict zones every day from all around the world. We can see each nation’s views to help us become better informed to perhaps avert future conflict. When you can pick up the phone to speak to your counterpart in another country and say ‘what’s going on Marg?’ It’s all about limiting the potential for miscommunication between allied forces –  or not so allied – and understand each nation’s perspective so we can get to a place to resolve issues diplomatically rather than militarily. As an instrument of Government, we do what we’re told, but it is amazing what good relationships can do at a military level, through diplomacy, how that can go back and inform ours, and other Governments to get better outcomes for everyone, say Shindy.

Not one to shy away from the big challenges of our time, Shindy completed a thesis on Islamic Infused Terrorism. According to Shindy, as a Muslim, she often gets asked ‘to explain herself’ and acknowledges the frustrations of the one-sided, populist dialectic ‘of your lot’, or as the notable late academic Edward Said wrote so eloquently in his treatise, Culture and Imperialism

“No one today is purely one thing. Labels like Indian, or woman, or Muslim, or American are not more than starting-points, which if followed into actual experience for only a moment are quickly left behind. Imperialism consolidated the mixture of cultures and identities on a global scale. But its worst and most paradoxical gift was to allow people to believe that they were only, mainly, exclusively, white, or Black, or Western, or Oriental. Yet just as human beings make their own history, they also make their cultures and ethnic identities. No one can deny the persisting continuities of long traditions, sustained habitations, national languages, and cultural geographies, but there seems no reason except fear and prejudice to keep insisting on their separation and distinctiveness, as if that was all human life was about. Survival in fact is about the connections between things; in Eliot’s phrase, reality cannot be deprived of the “other echoes [that] inhabit the garden.” It is more rewarding – and more difficult – to think concretely and sympathetically, contrapuntally, about others than only about “us.” But this also means not trying to rule others, not trying to classify them or put them in hierarchies, above all, not constantly reiterating how “our” culture or country is number one (or not number one, for that matter),” wrote Edward Said.

With 1 in 5 people who identify as Muslim in the world, Shindy is keen to understand the challenges faced by Muslims.

“We’ll I’d like to understand [radicalisation] just as much as the next person! Every crime that gets committed on earth we don’t automatically attach a whole faith to it. Crimes by people who identify as Muslim are being committed by a minute proportion of the entirety.  When we look at how many people die in Australia from domestic violence, compared to Islamic infused terrorism, there is no comparison. My thesis explored the creation of moral panic within society, how much it is played on for political gain, the role of the media and how it amplifies certain issues. There is a lot of soul searching, from the standpoint of what kind of narratives we tell ourselves and allow to be perpetuated in society, and how it diminishes us as a community and the quality of social cohesion.  The fact is, we will never get rid of issues, but what we can do is better manage tensions within communities so that everyone can get on and enjoy the privilege of being free to be themselves,” says Shindy.

It’s this kind of commitment to critical thinking and empathetic engagement, that has made Shindy a force to be reckoned with. Not one to pull rank when leading teams, Shindy says that the mark of true leadership is all about being able to understand the motivations of others, giving clear directives and holding people to account.

“At the end of the day, people are people, you can say, I’ve given you a lawful order get on with it, but there are very few times that those kind of approaches should be used, because to get the very best out of your people they need to be valued, and understand how their role, and personal contribution fits into the whole organisation. That is not achieved through forceful orders but by understanding what motivates your colleagues. A good leader will set a clear unambiguous vision and purpose for an organisation – something that people can latch onto that everyone at all levels can understand.  I demand two-way regular communication because I need to know that the person has understood and heard what’s been expected of them, so communication is essential in a leader. Also making sure that the team is resourced, trained… there’s no point in demanding outcomes if you haven’t facilitated it to be possible. A leader is somebody who recognises, acknowledges and rewards effort. People hang off words that leaders say so it’s important that we are not flippant, and speak with purpose, clarity and meaning,” says Shindy.

While high engagement and happy teams can make for smooth sailing, there are of course times when conflict is inevitable. For Shindy, the solution is simple.

“On a human level, conflict is resolved at the absolute basic level – having a conversation.  Taking the time to get to know the person is a great step to work out what’s the root of the problem – it may be a personal or a professional issue. If it’s a performance issue, then you take the steps to performance management. I set goals as a team, and we agree on what is reasonably achievable within a timeframe, and I’ll hold them to account. This approach reduces potential for conflict in my experience,” says Shindy.

Perhaps what makes Shindy so formidable as a leader is not the fact that she broke through a structure despite her gender or religion, but rather, it’s her commitment to normalcy, that any perceived differences by others was never on her radar.  In a sense, it seems that her ‘otherness’ is an encumbrance by which she is resigned to acknowledge, but will never give in to…and surely this quality of just getting on with the job is what all great leaders aspire to – or as the well-respected late New York Republican Gerald B H Solomon once said, “When you become a leader you give up the right to think about yourself”.

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