Macquarie University Dean of Law, professional mediator, gold-winning Ironman competitor and mother of four. If you’d asked a young Professor Lise Barry if she foresaw this career for herself, she would have scoffed. Here, she shares her leadership journey and lessons learned.
It was nighttime, and Macquarie University Dean of Law, Professor Lise Barry, was standing guard on a large wooden ketch on windy, high seas, petrified. Then in her early 20s, she’d recently returned to Australia following two years of travel. After high school, she’d tried studying law before joining the police force, but neither was the right fit. Barry knew she wanted to help others and was now studying social sciences and working with homeless youth.
The hostel where she worked wished to expose their teen wards to new adventures to help build their confidence and develop life skills. This was how Barry found herself clinging to the railing of the ketch as it plunged over enormous waves in the pitch dark, relying on the emotional support of an equally inexperienced homeless youth.
“I wondered what the hell I was doing there, what I got myself into, and whether I would die!” Barry says. “I was probably being a bit overdramatic!”
Unsurprisingly, it was a life-changing experience for Barry and the young man. He clearly remembered the encounter when they met some 15 years later, particularly how it had helped his self-esteem to have an adult rely on him.
Out of the frypan, into the flame
Working at the shelter led to Barry’s first leadership experience at age 23, running a crisis refuge for homeless youth in inner Sydney. The refuge provided temporary sanctuary to high-risk kids from abusive homes. Living onsite, Barry had six staff reporting to her and 10 youths in their care who were not that much younger than herself. While she later studied and developed skills in counselling and people management, at that point, she felt unprepared and underqualified.
“You’re trying to help kids feel secure while running a place where they can only stay for three months, trying to find them places to live, while managing their behaviours and the staff. It was really tricky,” Barry says. On the upside, she had supportive managers who guided her through some challenging circumstances.
The work incentivised Barry to become a Youth Justice Conference convenor, a role she held for 15 years in addition to her other youth work. As convenor, Barry would oversee meetings between a young offender and their victim to repair the harm caused by the offending behaviour. A year after commencing this role, Barry, married with two young children and pregnant with a third, returned to studying law part-time at Macquarie University.
“I think it was better timing for me,” Barry says. “Having been a police officer, then working with young people, young offenders and victims, meant I had a surface understanding of the law, but it was something I wanted to dive deeper into.”
Moving into academia
While juggling motherhood and studying, Barry held roles that allowed her to draw on her previous experience, including teaching law to community work students, working as a mediator, and tutoring on dispute resolution at Macquarie University, “which I loved,” she says. This work opened the door to working as a research assistant at the university.
In between, the family also spent a year volunteering on the Pacific island of Tonga.
“One of the things you learn as a woman juggling all these things is to be efficient, to make everything count,” Barry says. “I have a great husband, and I used child care. We were lucky that he could work flexibly and share parenting.”
After completing her law degree, Barry was offered a full-time position at the law faculty, contingent on her undertaking a PhD. The academic role appealed to Barry, but a PhD was a daunting commitment.
“I knew I couldn’t do it unless I had my husband and the kids’ support, so it had to be a family decision,” Barry says. It meant giving up her evenings and weekends, impacting everyone involved, but her husband and kids encouraged her to go for it, and everyone pitched in to help.
“We support each other and still take turns cooking and sharing the cleaning. We’re a team at home, and having a good support team helped me achieve everything I’ve done in my career and study.”
When juggling a career and family, build a strong support network and set clear expectations around your availability. Also, regularly assess your priorities.
“I take stock all the time. What are my priorities here? When do I need to focus on family? When can I let them do things for themselves? It’s a balancing act,” Barry says.
Barry undertook a research-based PhD, knowing she needed to be published to earn respect and keep her job in academia. “Teaching is only 40% of your job; another 40% is researching and publishing,” she explains. While undertaking her PhD, Barry not only gave birth to her fourth child but was promoted to Director of Learning and Teaching at the law school, her first leadership role as an academic. This position eventually led to her becoming Deputy Dean, then Dean of Law.
Barry’s unconventional career path meant she was entering academia leadership at a mature age, giving rise to self-doubt. “Many leaders talk about feeling imposter syndrome. Well, many academics feel imposter syndrome, too,” Barry says. “I was feeling like, how can I lead academics who’ve been here for years and years? They have a long history in universities, whereas I’m quite new.”
Barry’s solution was to focus on making it easier for her team to do their jobs rather than telling them what to do. “I also had some excellent bosses along the way who had faith in me, let me make decisions and told me when I was doing well,” she says. She credits her first boss, Professor Natalie Klein, and then Dean of Law, Emeritus Professor Rosalind Croucher AM, with being encouraging and setting great examples as leaders. Her husband was also very supportive. “You need those kinds of cheerleaders in your life.”
Barry also reaches out to women and leaders she admires to ask for advice, such as Associate Professor Robyn Clay-Williams. Like Barry, Williams had a different career before becoming an academic, working as a military test pilot and electronics engineer. “She’s a great sounding board,” Barry says.
If you’re experiencing self-doubt as a leader, remember that you have a wealth of experience to draw upon. For example, Barry draws on her previous work in mediation.
“That training and those skills have given me insights that help in my leadership role, not just in terms of conflict resolution, but in terms of listening skills, seeing a situation from different perspectives and not jumping to conclusions,” she says.
Today, Barry maintains roles as Dean of Law, Mediator for the Community Justice Centre, and is a National Sports Tribunal member. On the weekends, she and her husband are surf life savers in their beach-side suburb.
“I used to look at people sitting on surfboards out the back of the waves, and I really wanted to do that,” she says. “I was out of my comfort zone but loved it and made lifelong friends.” Through life saving, Barry took up Ironman events, having competed in local, national and world championships at a masters level.
“My biggest achievement is a gold medal in the World Lifesaving Championships in ski paddling,” she says proudly.
So has Barry overcome her fear of the sea? “I still get really scared when the surf’s big. But I do think that throwing yourself into something where you can be a bit scared is good for you,” she says.
Barry uses the rough seas as a metaphor for staying calm in a crisis, saying it is an essential leadership skill. “You don’t want to react to a crisis with fear but to act with conviction. It’s the same when you face big surf. If you’re afraid and you hold back, that’s when you get hurt.
“You have to attack a wave with confidence, knowing that you’ve prepared for it, done all the training, know what you’re doing, and put all of those things into practice.
“That’s when you’re going to put yourself in the best position to lead in a race, in the same way as you do in an organisation. You practice those skills, have a plan, and face that challenge with confidence and a good team behind you that you can trust.”
Professor Lise Barry’s Top Leadership Lessons
© Laini Bennett, MBA