Linda Selvey

Linda Selvey (from Greenpeace Australia website)

Linda was born in 1960 in Johannesburg South Africa, and moved to Australia when she was 4.  Her parents are both doctors, and Linda was the middle child of 3.  Linda and her siblings were raised as atheists, and Linda describes herself as atheist today.

Linda’s father was a surgeon, and her mother was a GP, working part time while the children were growing up.  Linda’s mother had been a very high achieving medical student, having won the University medal for Medicine from her University in Wales, and considered by her peers to be the one who was most likely to be most successful.  But Linda says her mother married young, (having been refused a significant medical position on the basis that she “would just leave to have children”) had a very strong urge to have children, and chose not to pursue the sort of career that she might have been expected to.   But, Linda says that she could see that her mother was frustrated at times with her life –  “She was extraordinarily bright, and possibly a bit bored.”

Linda says her mother’s choices had an influence on her from a young age.  Linda was always clear that she wasn’t going to “get married and have children”.  As an adult, Linda made a deliberate decision not to have children, primarily because of her concerns about the environment – the potential for climate change to cause wide-ranging environmental destruction – and not wanting to contribute to the stress placed on the environment by an increasing population.  Linda has “always been driven by the desire to make the world a better place” and says that if she had had children, she would have wanted to give them her full attention, and this would have prevented her from being able to focus on the sort of work she has been able to do.

Linda grew up in Darwin, and attended public schools throughout her education.  Apart from the lack of private school alternatives in Darwin at the time, Linda’s father said that he “didn’t want his children growing up thinking they were better than anyone else”.

Linda moved to Brisbane for University, enrolling first in a science degree, and the later switching to medicine.  Her first involvement in the environment movement came when she was in her early 20s, when she became aware of rainforest destruction.  She joined ACF, and started writing letters to support ACF campaigns.  She continued being involved in volunteer work for ACF, and then started volunteering with Aila Keto, who was putting together the World Heritage nomination for the Wet Tropics.

In 1987, Linda was asked to facilitate a national meeting of The Wilderness Society in Brisbane, which was the meeting that decided to actively support the ALP in the upcoming election.  Linda went on to be the on-ground coordinator for the election campaign, and from then became much more involved in TWS, taking on leadership roles on a voluntary basis, mainly through meeting facilitation and involvement in key campaigns, particularly the Tully Millstream campaign.  (During this time, she also worked as a Pathology trainee, then a GP and finally did her PhD)

While completing her PhD, Linda’s spare time was occuried with her volunteer work  with TWS and her enthusastic involvement in music.  After her PhD, Linda did a post-Doc at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland, where she was also involved in social justice work with disadvantaged communities and drug users.

On her return to Australia in 1994-95, Linda completed a Masters of Applied Epidemiology, while she also was working full time as a student is Queensland Health.  She and some friends tried to organize a group working on climate change issues, but a lot of her spare time was spent setting up the Hepatitis C Council of Queensland.  Also at this time, Linda met her husband, and became less active in the environment movement.  Linda married her husband when his daughter was 16, and she is still close to her stepdaughter as an adult.

Linda then took on a very big job as Director of Communicable Health in Queensland Health, leading a team of around 40 people.  I asked Linda about this period, starting with a question about the difference between leadership and management, and Linda also spoke about how she integrated advocacy into her work.

Linda talked in the interview about the skills she’s learned in management, both in her work with Queensland Health, but also in her later job as CEO of Greenpeace.

The lessons in management I’ve had to learn… particularly, giving people praise, and giving people all the information.  The way my mind works, I’m always very big picture and a number of steps ahead.  I’ve learned to tell the whole story to those I’m working with.

Linda took a year off and went to India, and became even more motivated about climate change issues.  On her return, she was offered the opportunity to become involved in the Queensland Conservation Council (peak body for Queensland environment groups) as Chair.  Linda accepted the position which she held from 2001 to 2009.

During this time, Linda was still very actively pursuing her career in Queensland Health, including leading an organizational change process across the organization. In 2005 she was promoted to head up Population Health at Queensland Health, a position she held for 3 1/2 years.  During this time she also represented Queensland on the Council of the Australian Conservation Foundation (1995-97 and 2004-06).  Linda’s husband died in 2005 and she has spoken about the impact this had on her life in other interviews (see

In 2007 Linda was trained by Al Gore on climate change, and how to do compelling public presentations , and this left her with an urge to do much more in this area.  Knowing that her position was incompatible with more advocacy work, she actually applied for position well below her current level, so that she could spend more time on climate change activism.  But before she could embark on this new arrangement, she applied for and was offered the job of CEO of Greenpeace Australia, and moved to Sydney to take it up.

I asked Linda about the differences between leading in a large bureaucratic organization like Queensland Health, and being the leader of a prominent environment NGO.

The biggest difference is the management side.  Queensland Health has a lot of good systems and processes in place, and finance and other administrative tasks were done on my behalf.  Because the organization was so much bigger, the people who reported to me were senior executives, and had huge capabilities, so my role was primarily leadership, and I was able to do a lot of advocacy work.  At Greenpeace, there’s a lot more management that falls to me, the people who report to me aren’t as highly skilled (you wouldn’t expect them to be). The bureaucracy has systems which are actually very valuable.  Having all that in place, frees up leaders to be leaders.

I also asked Linda whether she could see differences between women and men leaders in the environment movement

In general I think women tend to be more people oriented, more flexible, and probably less ego involved.  Across Greenpeace globally, there’s about 5 female CEOs out of 28, and the women tend to be all those things, and more interested in mobilizing people and more “big picture”.

Finally, I asked Linda whether there had been any personal impacts in taking on the Greenpeace job

There have been huge impacts – I had to move to Sydney, and give up my life in Brisbane, and my social networks, and a range of other interests.

I don’t feel like I’m working more hours here, but I find it more energy sapping.  It feels like an enormous personal cost.

One of the hardest things is that while I’m part of a global organization which acts on climate change, Australia is not a high priority country when it comes to climate change for Greenpeace.  But climate change is one of those issues where you always feel like you’re not doing enough.

Linda left Greenpeace in late September 2011 (shortly after this interview), after making a decision to follow her heart and move to Perth to be with her partner, Gabby.  She is currently pursuing jobs in public health with a view to campaigning on climate change in her spare time.  To this end, she is now of the Management Committee of Doctors for the Environment Australia.

Comments welcome below

About Jane Elix

I don't have enough bandwidth to deal with this
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