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Zali Steggall: ‘Don’t let others’ preconceived ideas limit your ambition’

Having a mental plan and coping mechanisms in place is key to success in any industry, according to Olympian-turned-barrister-turned-politician Zali Steggall OAM MP.

user iconLauren Croft 09 September 2021 Big Law
Zali Steggall
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Ms Steggall is no stranger to mental challenges, having competed in the Olympics and succeeding in both law and politics since. The lessons she’s learnt along the way have been useful in all aspects of her life. 

As part of the 2021 Minds Count Annual lecture, hosted virtually in light of Sydney’s ongoing lockdown, Ms Steggall spoke about the importance of mindfulness and mental health in the workplace, how she’s coping during lockdown and the most valuable lessons she’s learnt on her different career paths.

Currently the Independent Member for the federal seat of Warringah on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, Ms Steggall was previously Australia’s most successful alpine skier, winning a bronze medal in the 1998 Winter Olympics and a World Championship gold medal in 1999. In 2008, she practiced as a barrister, specialising in commercial law, sports law, and family law before moving into politics. She also runs ultra-marathon events in her spare time.


In the session, hosted by founder and CEO of Tenfold Australia Rich Hirst, Ms Steggall said that the most challenging part of the current Sydney lockdown has been not being able to plan ahead.

“It is challenging. I’m a very results-focused person, I’m very goal-oriented. And at the moment, we can’t really plan ahead and we don’t know how long we’re going to be in lockdown for. It’s really challenging,” she said.

“I’m really looking forward to getting back out and about and being able to plan ahead with some level of certainty – I think that’s really important.”

Ms Steggall initially enjoyed slowing down but has since had to continually work on staying present and positive – and is looking forward to running in more ultra-marathon events once the state is out of lockdown.

She described the events as “down time” and said that running gives her thinking time and time to disconnect from her life, allowing her to achieve active mindfulness.

“You’re physically active, but you have to be in the moment, because you’re concentrating on the track and on the trail. So, it gives me time to process the stresses of my work life and thinking time,” she explained.

“Mindfulness is trying to be in the moment. Don’t get caught up in the past or living in regret, but also not being in a sprint to the future. You’ve got to enjoy the journey, not just the destination.”

Taking pleasure in the journey is something Ms Steggall learnt the hard way after being a competitive athlete – and training 365 days a year for a 55-second race.

“You need to attach pleasure and satisfaction to more than just a moment of victory,” she added.

“In litigation, and in sports, at the end of the day it’s a very similar journey, where you put in the hard work, the training, the preparation, you’ve got to have the team around you and the expertise – but at the end of the day you don’t control the outcome.

“There’s always a range of outcomes that are possible and you don’t control that. So, you have to learn to let that go. But that’s not always an easy thing to do.”

Ms Steggall went to four Olympic games before retiring in 2002, and said she had high-level anxiety about competing prior to her retirement, for which she had to learn different mental strategies and coping mechanisms.

“You have to learn mechanisms. It’s like training, you have to actually train your mind to deal with those situations and have coping strategies,” she said.

Ms Steggall said that her approach has always been that “the mind is no different to your muscles” and you have to put time in to develop a strategy and have a plan for your mental health, as well as coping strategies for tough situations.

She added that while preparation is key, the right mindset is also important, as is not focusing on uncontrollable outcomes – a philosophy that can be applied to both litigation and politics, as well as competitive sports.  

“You should never be paralysed by a fear of losing, because that will stop you from having a go at a lot of things,” she said.

“You should always focus on what you can control and let go of what you can’t control. In any professional career it’s the same thing, especially in litigation and certainly in politics.”

In terms of mental health in the profession, Ms Steggall said that leaders were absolutely responsible for junior lawyers’ mental health, and should make sure their organisations had the right policies in place in addition to being open and vulnerable themselves.

“If you know it’s not your strength, you’ve got to make more of an effort. You have to be informed. But there’s no doubt we need leadership around that,” she said.

“It’s really important to acknowledge when things are tough and challenging. It’s important to be able to share [your vulnerabilities] so that people understand that no one is impenetrable.

“At the end of the day, it does make you stronger,” Ms Steggall added.

Additionally, being honest with yourself allows you to overcome limitations, said Ms Steggall.

“I’ve never let preconceived ideas limit what I thought was capable of or what I should aim for. Don’t let other people’s preconceived ideas or limitations limit your ambition,” she said.

“You have to be honest with yourself about what you want to achieve and then do everything you can to make that happen.”

Ms Steggall “thrives on the challenge” of succeeding within industries where it may be harder for women to get to the top; politics and law included. Whilst there are currently more women entering the Australian legal profession than men, the number of women decreases with seniority.

“There’s no doubt, there’s a lot of unconscious bias still at play. We need to see more proactive work in that space,” she said.

“The most successful companies are those with good gender equity policies and good diversity because you get more views around the table and you have a much more cohesive team. At the end of the day, better policy breeds success.”

Ms Steggall added that this concept also carries over into politics and encouraged those in the legal profession, particularly younger lawyers, to consider the move.

“You have to have a seat at the table, if not, policies won’t take your view into account.

“For young lawyers, I’d say get involved. I know the trust in politicians has really dropped, but sitting on the sidelines is not going to fix it. You have to participate.”

This advice is similar to what she would tell her younger self.

“The only decisions you regret are the ones you’re not brave enough to take. Where, in the past when I’ve worried about decisions, it is about backing yourself,” Ms Steggall said.

“I would go back and say, ‘you’ve got this’.”