What it takes to lead in a crisis
As Helen Seignior wanders through a park in Carlton near her Red Cross offices, she’s a world away from the harrowing experiences she’s had working with some of the biggest non-governmental organisations in the world. She’d be within her rights to have hardened by what she’s seen; yet she exudes calm and gratitude for a career that enabled her to make a significant contribution in human rights.
Today she’s the Melbourne-based Red Cross Support for Trafficked People national program coordinator, but she certainly hasn’t climbed a traditional career ladder to arrive there.
Back in the 1990s, when she was looking to begin a career in the field, there were no clear paths. ‘I studied arts, French and Spanish. I figured if I was going to work overseas I’d need languages to open lots of doors. And they absolutely did for me,’ Seignior says.
Her first break came through World Vision in Melbourne, but it was too far removed from the issues. ‘I wanted to go where people were fighting to change their conditions,’ she says.
In the early 2000s, World Vision gave her the opportunity to complete short missions to South Africa to raise awareness of HIV and AIDS.
Next, after meeting the World Vision regional communications manager, who valued her ability to speak Spanish, she was off to Costa Rica.
It’s difficult enough to start a new job anywhere, but moving to a foreign country alone was harder than she’d anticipated. ‘When I moved to Costa Rica I was probably the loneliest I’ve been. It was a really tough six to 12 months. It is a very religious country so people would spend their weekends going to church or going to a mall, but I wanted to explore volcanoes,’ she recalls.
The human rights crusader found the work too rewarding to give up. Two years later Seignior transferred to the International Labour Organisation, where she was charged with the task of establishing new strategies for the International Program for Eliminating Child Labour in Haiti.
In Haiti, ‘restavek’ is a disparaging term for a child domestic worker that translates to ‘the thing that stays in the house’. Seignior observed the conditions of these children who’d only ever been told what to do and when. They were ‘almost like robots’, she says. The program enabled these children to accelerate their education and while some thrived, not all recovered. Seignior has learnt that, ‘It’s nice to be an idealist, but you’re going to struggle if you can’t accept reality.’
'I wanted to go where people were fighting to change their conditions.'
Red Cross Support for Trafficked People national program coordinator
With extensive experience working in the field, it might seem that there would be little left for her to learn, but in 2015 Seignior elected to undertake the Humanitarian Leadership Programme, a Deakin University accredited course which is run in conjunction with Save the Children. The course includes a mix of theory and physical workshops where experienced humanitarian sector workers are thrown into simulated disaster situations and must work together to develop solutions.
‘We’re not always getting the leadership that we need in emergencies,’ Seignior explains and admits that passion alone does not necessarily make people good leaders in a crisis. The course enabled students to carefully assess their own personalities and increase awareness of their tendencies during an emergency. A breakthrough came when she accepted the fact that she’d never have the ‘perfect’ answer to a problem. ‘It really helped me identify what my tendencies are. A lot of people under pressure tend to withdraw. You can’t do that in those circumstances. You need to make a decision you can live with,’ she says.
All of this new knowledge enables Seignior to train more people to do good work in stressful situations. To those aspiring to a career like hers, Seignior points out that people often burn out. ‘The only way you can keep going is to have balance. It’s important as a leader to tap people on the shoulder and make sure they’re looking after themselves.’
Helen Seignior is a graduate of the Deakin University accredited Humanitarian Leadership Programme. Graduates can go on to complete a Master of Humanitarian Assistance at Deakin University.
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