Remarkable agricultural leader shares her powerful story

Sue Middleton is a well-known entrepreneur, skilled advocate, and influential leader for rural and regional Australia. For more than three decades, she has worked in regional development as a consultant and member of 22 boards. A former farmer, she has developed new businesses and enterprises.

Sue has a real-life perspective on making community organizations successful with 30 years of experience in successfully brokering government intent and industry capacity. Her rich knowledge allows her to generate agreements and build consensus in complex and contested stakeholder environments.

For all her work, Sue was awarded the Centenary Medal for Service to Regional Australia in 2002 and the 2010 Rural Industries Research and Development Cooperation (RIRDC) Rural Woman of the Year for Australia and Western Australia. In 2018, she was inducted into the Western Australia Women's Hall of Fame.

In March, Sue was featured by Zonta International in a Remarkable Women, Powerful Stories event, a leadership series hosted by Lynne Foley OAM, chair of the Zonta Spirit Working Group.

Here are some of the top takeaways from their conversation:

Perfect childhood

"I was raised on a beef and cropping farm near a little community in Queensland called Chinchilla. … At the time I felt it was the perfect childhood. I gravitated towards everything dad did, and I did that I think because he was out on the farm. I saw the farm and the outdoor stuff as a lot of fun, and so I spent a lot of time shadowing dad. My dad was the shire president. Now for people who come from a different country, this is probably akin to being a local government level—so not state or federal. … I got this early example of powerful leadership at a really local level and I think that really stuck with me as being something that I was really attracted to … I got this love for agriculture and I got this love for rural communities and then I got this great example of leadership inside of that as well."

Finding her purpose

"I didn't enjoy science. And it was the first time in my life where I'd actually had an experience where I felt like I didn't prosper. I wasn't successful and it was at a very young age. That's a really painful thing to go through. But what it enabled me to do was to then sit down and say what is it that I want to do. And I did a jump right to another institution which is part of the University of Queensland Gatton Campus and I started doing a bachelor of business, which I absolutely loved."

"I took on a job doing research assistant work for the university and I was living in Brisbane, Every night I would try and get up Mount Coot-Tha, which is a large mountain in Brisbane … to see the sunset over land. … I had an epiphany on the top of the mountain where I went, I actually have to go out into the communities that I care about, which is rural Australia, and take some of these early skills that I'd learned because this is actually what I care about. I care about the future of rural Australia. And I set myself a goal of making rural Australia prosperous—that's what I would dedicate my life to. That all happened on the top of the mountain, and I've really been doing that ever since."

How agriculture can change the world

"It's an important sector; not only does it feed the world but it's an important employer. It's usually the underpinning industry of most rural regional remote communities across the world. It's a really big employer of women as well. Women produce 51% of the farm output in Australia. So, it's really important on a number of different levels. But decarbonizing is the imperative, because if we look at where we're heading as a world, every industry has to be on the pathway to not just net zero but eventually zero and then even becoming carbon positive."

"Without AgTech (agricultural technology), we can't monitor what we're doing around decarbonizing. … AgTech gives you the capacity as a farmer to be able to look after your systems and explain your systems to either people who are consuming your product or it could be that you're explaining your system to someone who wants to buy an offset from you."

"Myself and some other farmers formed a group called Agzero 2030 in Western Australia. … We have a view around whether they're going to prevent us getting to the position we need to be by 2050, and so we also do a little bit of advocacy and sometimes influencing, and sometimes we're actually out there being more activists as well. It's been really exciting having both strands because you get to work on the stuff where you can change the structural foundations and tackle some of the difficult barriers but then also it's really fun being part of a group that is passionate and cares about the transition."

Taking a big leap

"I went to Western Australia to speak at a conference and I just said, 'I love this. I love what they're doing. I'm coming back to work here.' And so I went home, packed my bags and was in Western Australia (WA) within six weeks."

"I became the state coordinator of a program called Community Builders. What was great about that was that I knew how to revitalize one community and what I had to then learn to do was how to do this in 100 communities at once because that's what the program was all about. … In effect, in business terms, I learned how to scale up a skill and a development process that I had already learned at a local level. I still have this theory if I hadn't gone to WA, I would never have learned how to do that and that was a really important part of my growth and my journey."

"It's really important that when that opportunity comes along, it will actually look like something that's scary. It'll look like something that's risky. Everyone in your life will probably say, 'Oh gosh don't do that.' And these are trusted people you love and trust who will say, 'Gosh no.' And then you have to really figure out if that aligns with your purpose and helps you to achieve your purpose because you have to reassure everyone in your life, 'This is going to be OK.' "

Discomfort brings growth

"Lean into change. Do things that make you uncomfortable. The growth lives in the uncomfortable things. It doesn't live in the status quo."

Inspiring confidence

"I've got my confidence from having the wind knocked out of me, from being in environments where I was put in situations where people have attacked me. I do pick really tough topics to act on as well and so the thing that gets me through those moments is my network of people behind me. I call on what I call my girl gang to help me when I go into the tough fights. And my confidence has come from being in real-life situations where I had to really kind of step up."

"I have mantras, which helped me in any situation feeling like I have to do something and I don't have the confidence to do it. I create a possibility for myself, so I say, Who I am is the possibility of power freedom and love, which is what I want to bring to every room. So I step into my possibility and I put the armor on and I jump into the job. Confidence is really inspiring and people are drawn to it and they're magnetized by it. I find it's an incredibly important characteristic if you want people to come together around an issue to solve a problem."

"Early on, did I have the confidence? I think that I have always aimed higher. My view is, Aim really high. You'll get knocked down and you'll fail, but if you learn your lessons from failing, often what happens is you can then see the pathway. You should go, I tried it this way; oh God that was really bad. Dust yourself off and then go, OK, I can now see where I need to go but I need to potentially align with other forms of power or find another way into that room or I have to meet other people or whatever it is and be strategic about that."

Women supporting women

"Networking is incredibly important for me and for women to support each other because we bring collaboration to the room. That's how the big problems are going to be solved."

"The thing that inspires me most is when people show their vulnerability. Being yourself is to be incredibly vulnerable in a group of people. And if you can do that and overcome your great fear of—I  think Brené Brown's described this really well—that whole thing we're really scared of is shame. To overcome that, other people watch you and then go, Well I can actually try and do what I want to do because I just saw that person do that. It's a really powerful modeling."

"There's this thing that they say that women look ahead and they see if there's a woman there ahead of them, which is why that's an incredibly important activity for other women is to pull women behind you. I call them the snakes and ladders game and the way I describe it is, 'Am I building a ladder? Am I pulling other women up that ladder? Am I helping women when they get to the top of the ladder to get in the door? Am I doing all of those things?' Because if I'm the type of woman that's just pushing them down the snake, then I am not the person who is going to change any of these really tough issues."

"For 20 years of my life, I was the only woman on every board room I was in. I would go, I have to leave here with two women in this room, because once there's two women, the two women can get four women. And don't be a woman who shuts other women out of opportunities. When I was Rural Woman of the Year, I couldn't capture all the opportunities that were being thrown at me because I suddenly became visible. I didn't need my capability built; I was extremely capable. But I had to be seen, and once I was seen an avalanche of things came to me. So, my process was to say, 'I can't do that for you but I know a perfect person who can,' grab out of my network this person and hand hold them to the opportunity. And hand holding's often necessary because we do sometimes lack confidence or we sometimes have hits that affect our confidence as well. It happens to all of us."

"I would not be where I am and doing the things I am doing without my girl gang. It's really important to have good friends who love and support you."

Invisibility of women

"When people say, 'What do you think about where we are with leadership on boards in agriculture?' I say it needs to reflect the participation in the industry. … One of the key barriers that I discovered when I was a Rural Woman of the Year in 2010 is that women are invisible. It is actually harder to find the women and it's because people aren't networked into women's networks typically. So it's a bit like the ladder again. We have to all be building the ladders so that we can get the women into those positions."

Breaking the 'grass ceiling'

"I have to acknowledge that a researcher called Margaret Alston first talked about this barrier for women in agriculture. The barriers are real. This whole idea of because you're good at what you do and you're meritorious that you're going to get in there. Merit is the bottom rung of the ladder, absolutely the bottom rung. And you've got to get to the top of the ladder and the rungs in between are going to be about you know all of those things that we've talked about today. They're really critical and I meet lots of wonderful young women who say to me don't you think it should just be based on merit? and I thought, If I thought merit was going to get you there, I'd just say go for merit. But it's not going to get you there."


"My first board that I was on … my chair of the board was Cathy McGowan. … She's been an incredible change agent and person in rural and regional Australia who's completely shaken up the political system and ensured that rural and regional people get a say in our Parliament. That was really important for me because Cathy taught me so many important things and she actively mentored me through that time and we've stayed friends as well. … I learned a lot about power from Cathy and I learned a lot about really leaning into your own self-power, and understanding those two things are incredibly important. The other thing probably that I got from that early relationship with Cathy was she taught me to value myself. … She said, 'If you don't learn to value yourself, no one else will.' "

"We stand on others' shoulders and I've been able to stand on Cathy's shoulders. Then what we're doing, we're like a human pyramid. I'm pulling other young women up to stand on my shoulders because they will be the ones who will create the next future. I just want to make sure that I'm one of the people who's pulling them up and I want to be one of the people who's working on the causes that matter to them."

Importance of failure

"Failure is really critical if you're going to grow, but you also need to have some kind of support network around you that helps you after you've had a failure because it can be really personally devastating. I think it's really important to regroup and to look after yourself. It took me a long time to learn this that self-care is like when you're on the plane and it says, 'Fit your own mask before fitting the mask of the people with you,' that's really critical. You've got to fit your own mask, and so you need to be investing in the things that are helping you to be able to have the resilience and have the strength and to build that self-power."

Best strength as a leader

"Without a doubt, courage. I try very hard to tackle the hard things; I try not to leave them to other people. And that really requires a lot of courage. All the other things I've talked about like collaboration, listening skills, they're all the things that come after courage."

Biggest piece of advice

"Don't wait for the permission. This would be my big message. Confidence comes from tackling the hard things and so if you can see an area where you can change, go for it. Just get out there and make it happen. … If you can see the problem and you can see the solution, you are the person who is going to change it. Do not wait for permission."

What's next

"The gender equity issue—I came to that late in life, but I think I've really begun to understand what an important leverage point it is to support and help and to be a powerful advocate for other women. I think that and making sure that if there's anything I can do for younger women and people who are coming into rural and regional Australia who want to play that same role, that advocacy role, and I think it's supporting other people."

"I'm getting to the age now where I really want to lean into wisdom as well. And this is a topic I've only just started to play with, which is, What is wisdom and how can you bring wisdom to all of the things that you do? You've been around a long time, you've got 40 years of experience, there's a lot you've learned; how can you then bring that and have that be something that is part of your superhuman powers?"

To keep up with Sue, follow her on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Watch Sue's Remarkable Women, Powerful Stories video below:


30 MARCH 2023