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Effective leadership lessons Matina Jewell learned on the frontline

From serving on five overseas missions and earning nine military and war medals to becoming an Australian Peacekeeping Ambassador, keynote speaker and inspirational trailblazer, Matina Jewell’s life story is begging to be made into a Hollywood film. Oh wait, it is…

Highly accomplished is just one way to describe Major Matina Jewell (Retired) CSP, whose remarkable 15-year military career has seen her receive countless accolades and experience many firsts, including being the first woman in the Australian Army to complete the Navy Ship’s Diver course and becoming the only Australian to receive two Republic of Lebanon war medals for acts of bravery on the battlefield and being wounded in combat. She’s tracked down militia leaders, worked with special forces, fast-roped from helicopters, boarded smuggler ships in the Arabian Gulf, and has escaped death more times than she’d care to remember.

Fiercely feminine is another way to describe her, albeit more surprising. After all, this is someone who faced such extreme gender bias you’d perhaps expect she might have hardened over time. But the woman sitting in front of me, captivating me with some of the most extraordinary stories I’ve ever heard, is gently spoken, with a kind, open face, sparkling blue eyes and a soft laugh. I have to wonder, did the constant adversity change her as a person? And did it alter her leadership style?

“I learned early in my career that if I was going to be an effective leader, I would have to become flexible and adapt to the situations that evolved around me,” she explains. “One particular mission was straight after September 11, when I was sent to the Middle East and was working with United States Navy SEALs. During this six-month deployment, I was tasked with taking my water transport detachment into Kuwait to run operations with the Kuwaiti Special Forces soldiers. Those soldiers couldn’t get their heads around the fact that a woman was permitted to serve in the military, let alone command an all-male team. I had this polarising response towards me from the Kuwaitis: half of them would turn their backs on me and refuse to look at me, and the other half wanted to marry me. It was the first time where my culture and gender imposed so many limitations to me succeeding as a leader.”

Flexibility in leadership

Matina quickly found that she had to be very flexible in terms of her leadership style. “My preferred style of leadership is to be inclusive but, in this situation, my mere presence was causing so much chaos that I was forced to change the way that I operated. In fact, I had to physically remove myself from the environment, empower one of my male soldiers to pass on my directions to the Kuwaitis because I didn’t have the time to change the Kuwaiti mindset around the roles of women.”

Matina Jewell wears Hugo Boss and Kailis Jewellery.

It was one of the first times that Matina would learn invaluable leadership lessons – about everything from diversity and inclusion to the importance of delegation. The latter would come when, at just 23, she was appointed Officer in Command of the Army Department for HMAS Kanimbla, then Australia’s largest navy ship.

“That was a big gig – a job that really should have been given to someone who had at least a decade’s more experience than I had at that point,” Matina admits. “I was responsible for the planning, coordination and execution of the amphibious offload of up to 1,000 soldiers, their vehicles and their equipment. It was my job to get those thousand troops and all of their gear off not only HMAS Kanimbla but also from multiple navy ships simultaneously, get them across the beach and potentially put them into enemy terrain.”

“To succeed, I had to get really good, really fast, at three key leadership skills that I think are applicable regardless of the role and industry you work in.” – Matina Jewell

To add to this, Matina had six helicopters and 10 watercraft at her disposal. “What made these operations even more difficult was that we were often working with Special Forces soldiers who had to be deployed undetected. So I’m now running operations at night, without the use of lights or radios.”

Matina had to step up, and fast, quickly discovering three essential skills that would get her through this operation and many more. “I found if I was going to succeed, I had to get really good, really fast, at three key leadership skills that I think are applicable regardless of the role and industry you work in,” she explains.

Matina Jewell’s top leadership lessons

Learn to delegate

“First, delegation. When you have 1,000 people, helicopters, watercraft, and potentially an enemy that’s running interference in your plans, you realise quickly you can’t do it all yourself,” Matina says. “I was forced to learn the art of delegating and, like many leaders, I found it difficult at first to fully empower the people around me to carry out the vision.”

Communication is crucial

“Second, communication. I found delegating became easier if I could effectively communicate with my team. Just as communication is essential in the business world, it is vital on the battlefield. If every soldier isn’t 100% crystal clear of the commander’s intent, you can quickly end up in a catastrophic situation.”

Know your people

“And third, I couldn’t perform these two key skills to the highest level until I understood and knew my people. If I knew each individual’s strengths and weaknesses, I could assign the right person to the right job at the right time.”

Matina used these three skills throughout her career, but particularly relied on them to survive the 2006 Lebanon War.

“There were so many times where I should have died during that war,” she says. “And one of my luckiest escapes occurred in the very first hour of the war. I was on the observation deck at Patrol Base Khiam and happened to be looking south when I saw a 1,000-pound aerial bomb that had been fired by an Israeli fighter jet whiz past me. It came so very close – just 30 metres away from me at eye level – I felt I could put my hand out and touch it. The moment would have happened in a split second, but it felt like it was happening in slow motion and I had just enough time to tell my teammates to get down as the bomb exploded.”

Matina talks a lot about her fellow teammates and the deep respect she has for those she loved and lost is striking, her heartbreak almost palpable. No more than when she talks about her final mission in Tyre, Lebanon.

“I was tasked to command a convoy of UN armoured vehicles through the war zone – I had two armoured personnel carriers, and 16 Indian and Ghanaian infantry soldiers under my command,” she recalls. “That drive from Khiam to Tyre would normally take two hours, but Israel had commenced their ground invasion into southern Lebanon and the only roads I could take ran parallel to the border, which was where all the fighting was happening. So instead of two hours, it took two days with bombings and near misses from both sides of the war.”

Life-changing moment

But as Matina and her convoy were en route to Tyre, she received a message that Israel was about to conduct the largest air strike of the war and the road that she was on, was one of the roads due to be targeted.

“I was on the radio to HQ and didn’t foresee that my driver was about to do an evasive manoeuvre,” she says. “I was thrown forward into the bulletproof windscreen of my armoured vehicle, breaking my back in five places: two vertebras were crushed, three more were fractured, I ruptured my diaphragm and sustained a number of internal injuries. Despite the pain, I knew I had to get the convoy rolling again and get us to headquarters as quickly as possible.”

However, Matina was now a casualty of war and fully reliant on the UN to get her to hospital for treatment. But all the UN medivac processes failed and she spent the next two days lying on her back on the concrete floor, without any morphine, surrounded by bombing and still needing to lead and make decisions.

“I think there are some great learnings that can come from my experience,” she says. “All managers who have those very critical processes within their business: we not only need plans and back-up plans, but we also need to practise and rehearse those prior to getting into crisis situations.”

Matina was eventually loaded onto a stretcher and into an ambulance before being handed over to a lifeboat, then onto a ship for a 20-hour boat ride across the Mediterranean Sea. It was when she reached Cyprus that she received the tragic news that another 1,000-pound aerial bomb had directly hit the bunker of Patrol Base Khiam, where she had left only days earlier and where her unarmed teammates were taking shelter. All four were instantly killed.

“They were like brothers to me,” she says quietly. “Each of them great men and great characters, and all of them had families. This was a really traumatic period in my life, and compounding this was that not one of my UN commanders or even my own Australian commander ever contacted me about the deaths of my teammates – I found out about the bombing via CNN news. I think because of the lack of contact from my own leaders, it took me many years to come to terms with their deaths.

“Again, great learnings can come from this experience: during times of crisis, it’s more important than ever to communicate with our people. Particularly if we want to get them through a crisis period and out the other side as a functioning, cohesive team, capable of moving forward and operating successfully. It’s vital that, as leaders, we take the time, during a crisis, to speak to our people.”

It would take a total of 15 days for Matina to arrive back in Sydney after breaking her back, to commence treatment for her spinal injuries, but it would take so much longer for her to start the process of recovery.

“When I returned to Australia, I had lost my career and was medically retired from the army,” she says. “And once the Defence Force made that decision, I found that I had three battles to fight. The first and second battle were with the government over health cover and war service recognition – the injuries that ended my career weren’t necessarily going to be covered once I left the army – health cover that I knew I would need for the rest of my life. Although I was clearly in a war, declared a war by the UN, I didn’t automatically tick the Australian government bureaucratic box for war service recognition. We won on both of these issues, but it was drawn out over years and it led me to hit absolute rock bottom.

“The third battle was survivor guilt. I’d lost my teammates; I resented being alive. I had PTSD, and horrific flashbacks of the war that made me very sleep deprived. I’d gone from being very fit to bedridden and immobilised with pain. I was severely depressed and consumed in a world of negativity. I was so focused on what I had lost that I couldn’t see what I had to live for. But, thankfully, I have the most amazing support network around me – my family, my friends, my military colleagues and mentors.”

“It’s vital that, as leaders, we take the time, during a crisis, to speak to our people.” – Matina Jewell

These days, Matina isn’t just a beacon of hope and positivity, she’s on a mission to share her incredible life experiences with many of Australia’s biggest businesses as an inspirational keynote speaker and through her successful online training program Leadership in Action and the soon-to-launch Resilience in Action. “I get to meet people from all walks of life and learn from them as much as they might learn from me,” she says. “It’s great to be able to share my experiences to help people improve their own lives. It’s also a privilege to honour my UN teammates on that platform, to share the legacy of their sacrifice in the service of peace.”

And that platform looks to be getting a whole lot bigger. Hollywood has come a-knocking and Matina’s remarkable life story has been optioned for a feature film. “It’s still in the very early stages of script development, but I had this surreal experience when I was in Hollywood and was asked if I had a preference between Margot Robbie or Charlize Theron!” she laughs. “I’ll always back an Aussie, and Margot Robbie is incredibly talented, so if the stars literally align, she would be amazing to play that role. Still, Margot Robbie or Charlize Theron?” She jokes, “I probably could live with either.”

Feature image: Matina Jewell is wearing Hugo Boss and Kailis Jewellery.

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