Taking on a leadership role in your own life

FW's Jamila Rizvi on how illness changed her perspective on life and leadership.

By Kate Kachor


FW's Jamila Rizvi on how illness changed her perspective on life and leadership.

By Kate Kachor

Jamila Rizvi is candid about mourning her once crystal clear sense of career direction.

As a teenager she had a fierce desire to enter politics, much to the discomfort of her public servant parents and the bafflement of her friends at the time. 

“While the other kids harboured dreams of playing (AFL) for St Kilda or starring on Dawson’s Creek, I was laser-focused on this single, supremely uncool goal,” the FW Deputy Managing Director said during her keynote address at the FW Leadership Summit 2024

“I stayed with that uncool goal for over a decade.”

Then at age thirty-one,  two key life moments collided in the same week, shifting the trajectory of her career and her life.

“First, the then leader of the Labor Party called me and asked me to consider running for parliament and then  I was diagnosed with a rare kind of recurrent and potentially fatal brain tumour,” Rizvi said.

“Since being unwell, I have watched friends and former colleagues achieve the things I’d once planned for myself. I have mourned that crystal clear sense of direction that I had as a teenager. I suspect there are people here who have had that same kind of feeling, where you were so sure about something until you weren’t anymore.”

It was a moment when her ultimate and arbitrary measure of success was gone. Without a means to judge the success her thoughts raced.

“I started questioning why I’d wanted to do that kind of work in the first place and I started rebuilding a bit of a new identity,” she said.

In the years since that moment, she’s learned that most people have no idea why they do the work they do.

“I was chatting with (Dr) Anne Summers, she’s the first person I’ve ever met who said ‘I know’,” Rizvi said, causing many in the audience to laugh. 

“Most people don’t know what they want to do when they group up, no matter how old they are.”

“If you’re not deliberate about sacrificing where you’re willing to, you will end up sacrificing the important without intending to.”

Rizvi took a moment to acknowledge the scores of FW summit attendees who are in the process of returning to the workforce.

“For those of you who are spending some time outside of the paid workforce at the moment, I think that can give you more time and space to think. But it doesn’t necessarily give you any more answers,” she said.

Sometimes when you have too many options it starts to cause a kind of overwhelm and knowing what you want first requires knowing who you are and that stuff is what is really, really hard.” 

The journalist and political commentator then shared a sweet moment about her eight-year-old son who waltzed into the living room at breakfast last year and announced he was going to be a Pokémon trainer.

It was an unexpected moment that caused Rizvi to raise her eyebrows. She wanted to know why her son was letting go of his previous dream – “to be the guy that sweeps the floor after LEGO Masters competitions”. 

“Since that day, Rafi has had an unwavering dream of a Pokémon trainer, it’s informed all of his decisions, He’s taken it out mostly on the dog, who is now being treated as a Pokémon and being trained accordingly,” she said. 

“He diligently folds up these red and white origami Poké Balls and whispers to them when he thinks nobody is listening. At the park, he’s always hunting for an elusive species.”

Melbourne-based Rizvi has no doubt her son will achieve his dream – he simply wants it too badly to fail. 

It led her to pose a series of questions to the audience, one of which was ‘what are you willing to sacrifice?’ 

“At the start of your career, I think it’s pretty easy to grab every opportunity and pursue every possibility to its end, because you don’t get as many opportunities when you’re starting out and you don’t have as many responsibilities when you’re just starting out,” she said. 

“But as you get older and wiser and busier and more in demand, that does have to change. And if you’re not deliberate about sacrificing where you’re willing to, you will end up sacrificing the important without intending to.”

She said career and life success, and personal happiness, are defined by “what you say ‘no’ to, far more than by what you say ‘yes’ to”.

Rizvi shared the hardest part of her illness to date might come as a surprise..

It was 2020 and she was still getting used to what would be a lifetime on hormone replacements. At the same time, Melbourne was in the depths of lengthy COVID-19 lockdowns. 

“I ended up going without a whole bunch of hormones for nearly nine months. I’m talking the kind of hormones that make life worth living. I was struggling in so many different ways,” she shared.

“I was struggling with undiagnosed damage to my hypothalamus, which is part of your brain that manages your hunger, as well as body temperature, your metabolism, all sorts of things.”

“The treadmill of working and family life don’t give you many moments to step off and reset.”

It was during this time she made an array of promises to herself. 

“I came up with all sorts of promises about what I would do when I was back the way I used to be. This is called the contingent when. While mine was perhaps an extreme example than most, heaps of us live in a place of ‘when’, right? she said. 

“We’re driven by evolving sets of priorities and for you, it could be anything, it might be you’ve got to get through the next quarter of reporting at work then you’ll be able to go watch your kids play sport on the weekend again. Perhaps when you finish your PhD, you’ll stop taking work stress out on your partner during a fight. Perhaps when your mum is set up with a better care situation, you’ll grapple with the self-doubt that stops you applying for the next role.” 

Rizvi candidly shares that her own perspective on work, and life, has undergone a massive shift since getting sick.

Before her illness she was “very much a mouse in a wheel, running wildly, to a destination” – a destination chosen without any kind of “introspection or interrogations”.

“The treadmill of working and family life don’t give you many moments to step off and reset,” she said. 

She admitted stepping back on the metaphorical treadmill is difficult these days. Yet, she does still want a sense of firm direction and moving towards it.

“If you’re going to take a leadership role in your own life, as well as in the lives of others, then you have to force those moments into being, those moments of reflection,” she said.

“Regardless of your current circumstances, I am absolutely confident that incredible opportunities lie ahead.”

Thank you to our Presenting Partner CommBank and our Major Partner SG Fleet.