Leadership through Adversity

5 September 2017 By Will Brodie

Elle Steele
Elle Steele

Little wonder Elle Steele is in demand as a speaker.

She aims to inspire.

Elle represented Australia at the 2000 Paralympics as a 16-year-old. When devastating injuries curtailed her swimming career, she became a national representative in wheelchair rugby. She’s overcome major surgeries and depression to achieve elite sporting success and run businesses.

But she’s about more than good stories.

Elle brings expertise in countering adversity.

“I have a few little techniques that I teach other people. One of them is when you’re having a crappy day, allow yourself to feel it all. Because the more that we go deep into the feeling the quicker that it leaves us.

Elle suffered depression after retiring from swimming. She learnt not to “bottle up” her emotions.

“I talk a lot about that dark night of the soul where you feel that everything is coming to an end but actually it’s really a crucible moment, a catalyst, a big change in your life that needs to happen.

“The end of my sporting careers as a swimmer and as a rugby player have both been pivotal moments in me growing as a person and growing as a leader as well.”

And leadership has always been a feature of Elle’s life. She was voted captain of the Paralympic swimming team. At the trials for the 2004 Athens Paralympics that role provided one of her biggest tests, when she injured a shoulder and missed selection by 0.3 of a second.

These days, Elle’s injuries preclude her participation in her chosen sports. It’s meant a transition, and she’s coped because she developed her career whilst a sportsperson.

These days, Elle is a public speaker, business mentor and employment and leadership consultant. The message common to these roles is that she believes individuals have what they need within.

“We all have this innate knowing in ourselves and my job is just to help tease that out. It’s just about helping them through believing in themselves.

“We’re not examples of what has happened to us but how we choose to react to things.”

Elle is frustrated by the fact that people with disabilities are not consulted over designs that affect them. 

“We have all these standards and policies that have been written, but has anybody actually asked a person with a disability whether it actually works?”

But she rejects “whingey” people in the disability sector.

“Yeah there are things that aren’t right, but if you don’t like something do something about it.

“I think it’s really important in 2017 to stop being so negative about things and go to the government with solutions. Because they don’t know it’s just the same thing over and over and over again until someone comes in and puts the stopper in the wheel it will just continue to spin like that.”

And she’s calling on people with disabilities as much as the able-bodied.

“If we create this negative story around everything it just gets worse and worse because we’re building on the negativity. If we just let it go and don’t compartmentalise ourselves from able bodied people then everyone realizes we’re actually all the same.”

Elle says people relate to her words because they are derived from her personal experience. They are authentic.

“I’m the only person in the world with my combination of disabilities. I could have chosen to make that a really hard life for myself but instead I’m choosing to do what I can with what I’ve got.

“It hasn’t always been easy but no one else is going to do it for me so I have to.”

It’s worth speaking about.


Elle Steele is a past participant in last year's Williamson program.

Fully funded scholarships are available for Williamson* and a range of other Leadership Victoria programs through the Disability Leadership Program.

* Williamson has a small fee