Their Stories

Leading for Change

14 November 2017

As someone who has made a life-long study of leadership and governance, it is no surprise that Michelle Deshong’s involvement with the Australian Rural Leadership Foundation has many facets. Since graduating from Course 15 of the Australian Rural Leadership Program (ARLP) in 2009, Michelle has gone on to guide and facilitate programs like the Torres Strait Women’s Leadership Program and to shape the frameworks providing relevant, inclusive and effective program offerings for Indigenous Australians.

Over the twenty five years for which the Foundation has developed leadership programs—and certainly over the past decade in which Michelle has been closely involved—she says the organisation has grown just as much as it’s alumni have.

“I think the Foundation is such a reputable agency, and I’ve always wanted to reinvest where I could,” Michelle, who was sponsored on the ARLP by the Tim Fairfax Family Foundation, says.

Michelle was Director of the Australian Indigenous Leadership Centre at the time she applied for the ARLP, which itself derived some conceptual inspiration from the Foundation. She was looking for new perspectives and broader horizons, and the leader says the ARLP delivered just that.

“For me the ARLP was an experience that tested my leadership capability in a non-Indigenous space. At that particular time, I was trying to see where the depths of my knowledge and skills-base could reach. I knew that people looked at things through such different lenses, and the Program was an opportunity to do that myself,” she says.

“It’s a bit of a cliché, but the ARLP was a life changing experience for me for a number of reasons. It affirmed for me that my leadership was effective and strong and ethical and that I could work across many sectors.

“My work in Indigenous affairs had also been very much focused on social justice, and the ARLP exposed me to a whole other range of conversations around food security and food production and water rights, which isn’t necessarily part of my focus area, but is important to know about when we’re talking about community development and sustainability,” Michelle explains.

“Finally, some of the friendships I made on the program have continued to last many, many years. We’re coming up to our 10th year. Those people are still part of my personal and professional networks.”

By the same token, Michelle says she knows that she often plays an important role in her interactions with people who may not have had much exposure to Indigenous Australia.

“You find yourself constantly being in that space where you have to educate people. That can involve saying things they’re not going to like, but it’s also important to understand their point of view and say, well why do you think this way? How do we come to some sort of common ground about that?”

Last year, Michelle travelled to North America on a Fullbright Scholarship, where she explored a different kind of common ground—that of First Nations people and their struggle and success pursuing self-determination. In tandem, Michelle has taken on a relatively new role as CEO of the Australian Indigenous Governance Institute.

“Governance and leadership are really inter-related with rights, which means that we have to have critical conversations around the ways we want to be, behave, function and control our lives. Part of my role in Indigenous affairs has always been trying to chip away at the status quo, and say, isn’t there a way we could do this differently?”

Doing things differently is also one of the reasons Michelle is relishing her work with the Torres Strait Women’s Leadership Program and National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Leaders Program (NATSILP).

“My involvement with these programs are another part of repaying the investment made in me,” Michelle says.

“These programs align really well with my own interests and values: that leadership, politics and governance are so important, and particularly that supporting women to take on more leadership roles is crucial. Similarly with NATSILP, we can see that there are certain things that the Foundation’s philosophies and programs give that other providers don’t.”

Michelle says she can see Indigenous program participants learning from exactly the same experiences she had through the ARLP.

“The experiential part of these programs is so important. You lose all of your safety nets. Sometimes we get so used to our lives and how we function that being put in uncomfortable spaces is both challenging but also really rewarding. It’s very different to a classroom. It involves a survival mode that you go into … I also think the industry partners that the Foundation has are fantastic.”

An extension of her influence with Foundation program’s is Michelle’s ability to directly mentor and support her fellow Indigenous leaders, whatever stage of the journey they are at.

“There’s a kind of adrenaline when you see someone having their own ah-ha moment. It’s that kind of affirmation that this is why we do what we do. The women who go through the Foundation programs have moments where something just clicks for them, and so I guess I’m always mentoring, supporting and trying to lead other women. I’m also just on their backs a little bit, because you go on a program and get all these great ideas but then you go back to the community and that can quickly shut down. The hardest thing is keeping momentum.”

As a self-confessed “dominant leader”, Michelle acknowledges she is pretty comfortable out the front, but understands that not every leader is.

“Like everybody else, when I was growing up I was led into this idea that leaders are people with high public profiles, and people who have big jobs and all of that kind of stuff,” she says.

“But working in the public service and experiencing programs from all angles has really helped me to appreciate that leadership can come in various shapes and forms at all levels of our communities. That’s one of the most important things to understand.”

More information

The Torres Strait Women’s Leadership Program is a collaborative project between the Torres Strait Regional Authority (TSRA) and the Foundation. For more information visit the TSRA’s website

NATSILP is funded by the is supported/funded by the Australian Government and delivered by the Foundation. For more information, see National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Leaders Program.

To donate to the Foundation Billy Can Fund to provide an open scholarship for the Australian Rural Leadership Program, see Alumni Scholarship.

For more information about the program, see Australian Rural Leadership Program.


From left to right: Philippa Woodhill, Lisa Lui, Michelle Deshong and Sharkira Whap.

Photographs courtesy of Torres Strait Regional Authority.