Can Leadership Be Learned Or Is It In The Genes?

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I recently attended a debate at the Business Forum, hosted by Chartered Accountants ANZ, about whether leadership can be learned or if it’s in the genes.

The argument that leadership is a birthright poured scorn on the booming global leadership industry—that’s worth $45 billion annually—as a complete fallacy, advising the audience not to waste their money on online courses promising to get them to the next rung on the corporate ladder.

While the opposition argued that education is an evolving lifelong process and that most skills are learned. They quipped that leadership can be taught because even girls and kiwis are doing it!

Personality traits have a lot to do with leadership and some people naturally possess those qualities, which are observable from a young age. However, I also believe that skills and talent can be nurtured. And if leadership is about walking your own talk and inspiring others then surely that comes from experience and authenticity rather than birthright? One view that supports the idea of experience is that leadership stems initially from home—with moral values and rules instilled by mothers, who usually set the tone of the household, and to some extent, of course, fathers.

So can anyone be a leader, including an introvert who lacks confidence, charisma conviction and authority? In theory, yes, but not everyone aspires to be a leader and that comes back to personality as well as values, career and lifestyle choice.

In the run up to the US election with the ridiculous likelihood of Donald Trump being elected, and the upcoming Australian election with the uninspiring choice of watery policies from Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten, it poses the question: where the hell are all the charismatic leaders?

I’d love to know what you think about leadership. Let’s continue the debate.

Day One in the Life of a Pommy Backpacker in Australia

Fifteen years ago I arrived in the land down under as a Pommy backpacker. In Cairns, Queensland at around 6 am with my sister, Karen, mum and her partner, John. The first Australian person we met imprinted himself firmly on my memory: the taxi driver, Bruce. Those long startlingly white knee-high socks, complete with short shorts and Jesus sandals made me think, in my befuddled jet lag fuzz, we’d landed in another era, or maybe in Germany. No: it was definitely the land down under.

Mr Knee-High Socks dropped us off at our accommodation, right on the Esplanade. The art deco façade was blush pink and racing green, shaded by towering palm trees, waving in the breeze. It had looked nicer on the internet, the vinyl sign advertising “Rooms from $36” cheapened it somewhat. Yep $36! That was back in the year 2000.

The air was clammy and sweaty, like a load of wet washing left in the machine. For a family from the north of England, used to seeing grey skies and drizzle, this southern sky was vast and endless. The sun had just peeped over the escarpment in all in its orange glory to greet us. As did the mosquitos who feasted on our sweet blood.

Too early to check in so we sat and watched the morning awaken. Rainbow-coloured lorikeets slurped and bathed in the mossy pond at the hotel, which had looked like a generous, inviting swimming pool on the Internet where we could ‘cool off for a refreshing dip’. A flurry of cockatoos like fluttering white tissues screamed and stripped the bark from the palm trees in a frenzy. Cicadas droned and clicked. Even the earth and grass beneath our feet seemed to hum along with the cacophony of noise. We’d arrived: in the land down under.

We spent the day exploring the town and booking trips. Mum and I hitched a ride (you do these things when on holiday!) in the back of the hotel handyman’s Ute — another elderly gentleman with knee-high white socks — to the Olympic swimming pool, where the water was the same mouthwash blue as the sky. And where I discovered the disparity between a good English swimmer (as I’d considered myself) and a good Australian swimmer, whose powerful shoulders thrashed the water with effortless strokes.

The sky turned from mouthwash blue to the grisly stewed tea colour we were familiar with. So, naively, and despite the clammy heat, we assumed cloud cover meant no sunburn. The first of many rookie errors for us bleached white folk from the north of England. We finished the day with swollen feet, skin blistered pink like boiled ham and mosquito-bitten.

For dinner another new experience: not kangaroo or crocodile but Thai. Hard to believe now, but it was the year 2000 and we were a family from the north of England! After a long day we retired to our hotel, where my sister discovered a fresh problem. She couldn’t remove her contact lens. The humidity (presumably the culprit as it had never happened in our drizzly climate) had caused it not just to stick to her eyeball like glue but also to work itself up into an impossible to reach place behind her eyeball. After flushing and pushing we (mum, sister and I) decided to go to the hospital, which was conveniently located about 300-metres away.

Thankfully it was more efficient than English A&Es – no four-hour wait, we were in and out in no time, as was the contact lens. She said they’d removed her eyeball to retrieve it and the experience had been like riding on a big dipper.

Don’t walk home, get a taxi, we were told by hospital staff. But our hotel is literally a two-minute walk, we explained. You’ll be robbed, they told us. That’s why the doors are locked; tourists are easy prey for Aboriginals searching for a quick fix. They circled the entrance doors, like zombies, shifting from foot to foot. We took their advice on the taxi, only to discover that John had been robbed as he slept, having (trustingly) left the door unlocked.

And so concluded my eventful day one in Australia. The following days and weeks were just as magical and exciting: the Great Barrier Reef, Kuranda railway, banana and sugar plantations and Palm Cove, followed by Brisbane. Then Sydney – the jewel that captivated this nomad and held her tightly in its clutches.

Every time I see the local bus driver in his knee-high white socks and the cockatoos in my garden I remember that first day in Australia. I’m the story of the Pommy backpacker who never went home, who is still in love with God’s marvelous country down under fifteen years later.

Just Because You Have A Penis

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“Just because you have a penis doesn’t give you the right to not clear up,” I yelled at my husband as he sloped off to the couch after dinner.

He thinks I have penis envy. What I have is power envy. At the heart of it I’m a feminist who demands equality and I will not conform to what’s expected of my gender. So, I’m challenging his deep-seated beliefs about the roles we play as man and woman, husband and wife.

We used to have an Italian neighbour who would say, in all seriousness, puffing on his Marlboro lights as he watched his girlfriend clean the flat that “cleaning was not his thing.” I don’t think it’s anyone’s thing yet let’s face it, most women in a heterosexual relationship, even when both partners are working full-time, still do the lion’s share of domestic chores and child care. It’s enough to make me weep. I wonder what happens with gay couples? Does one partner take on the feminine role or is it more equal?

As a young girl I was a tomboy and a sports fanatic. My physique was so strong and muscle-bound at seven years old that my male friends were scared to arm-wrestle me! I guess some things haven’t changed except now I wear dresses, lipstick and sometimes, occasionally, heels. But I find myself dressing in a more androgynous way these days, partly as a way of not conforming to gender ‘rules’ to make me more attractive and feminine, but mostly because I just want to be comfortable.

I don’t want to smear toxic chemicals and animal innards onto my face to look prettier nor do I want my back, knees and hips to hurt from wearing heels. The backlash against the sexism of high heels is heartening – with women reportedly banned from Cannes Film Festival for refusing to wear them, celebrities such as Emily Blunt championing the flat shoe and demanding equality in dress code, and even Victoria Beckham is swapping her trademark heels for sneakers.

But what about Magic Mike? How does my feminist status reconcile with going to see this cheesy film about male strippers? It was all about the dancing. Kind of. The dancing was pretty spectacular but the main attraction was clearly the male form, which was, of course, staggeringly beautiful. Apparently, at my age that makes me a cougar— that’s OK, I love wild cats. In fact, Channing was so alluring that my friend, due to give birth the following week, spontaneously went into labour after the film! And, no, she didn’t call him Channing or Mike.

Just because we admire Channing Tatum’s body does not mean we have to play out the subordinate feminine role in our relationships. My feminism is not about the diminishing of men. It’s about celebrating strong men and strong women.

So, if I could just stop getting leered at by men with their simmering patronising aggression while I’m riding my bike that would be a good start on the wobbly road to equality.

 

How To Retire At 40

We were debating what the retirement age is in Australia the other day at work. I said 70, someone said 65, someone else said 60. Turns out we were all right given the difference between the pension age, the super age and some other detail I don’t recall. The point is they were all pretty depressed at the thought of having to work to such a ripe old age.

“I’m going to retire at 50,” my colleague piped up.

“I’m already semi retired,” I replied – to ripples of laughter.

It’s true. At 40 I am semi retired. So, how did I manage it? I’m not a trust fund, silver spoon fed girl. Neither do I have a sugar daddy of a husband. My retirement is all down to my own hard work and considered choices about how I want to live my life.

I’ve worked hard for twenty-odd years, over half of which were spent in the highly charged marketing and corporate world until I almost burned myself out. Now I freelance as a writer, bringing stories to life for businesses and magazines, and I teach yoga part-time.

In my spare time (which is plentiful) I ride my bike, walk my dogs by the beach, and write my labours of love: short stories, a memoir and a novel. I have to remind myself not to feel guilty about having down time. Being busy is worn like a badge; as a measure of success and importance.

But I don’t see either writing or yoga as actual ‘work’ in the gruelling, obligatory, monotonous sense. I see it as play, a hobby and a way I choose to live my life. See, I was writing and practicing yoga for years before I got paid for them. Now I just feel fortunate that I get paid for doing what I love.

So, it is possible to retire at 40. But only if you make a conscious choice; it means you may have to sacrifice material things. It’s not for everyone. It’s funny how those well-worn anecdotes like ‘life begins at 40’ play out, and how crystal certain things become when you stop and realise you are approximately half way through your life.

Choice is the definitive word – what life do you choose and how do you measure success? If money and reaching the top of the corporate ladder are your priorities then retiring at 40 is probably unrealistic.

Do you want to continue on the treadmill or to design and carve the life you dream of? I’m not encouraging laziness. Learn. Create. Evolve. Leave your comfort zone. Challenge yourself. But choose to follow your own path, not the one you’re conditioned to believe you should follow. That path might just, if you’re lucky, lead to retirement at 40.

 

We Name The World With Words

Sydney Writers’ Festival provided me with pure literary nourishment across a breadth of written forms – that at first glance may seem unrelated to copywriting. However, just as taste may seem a given topic to cover when writing about food, MasterChef winner Adam Liaw says writing about taste is boring; food is about the total experience so humour me, if you will, for a moment.

From non-fiction and fiction to poetry, I explored the full gamut of language with Australia’s best-known authors, journalists, critics and poets.

In the session Slicing, Dicing, Writing chefs and restauranteurs, Rick Stein and Adam Liaw; food writer Andrew Lewins; and restaurant critic Miffy Rigby discussed food writing from menus to marketing, trends in cookery books, blogs, and celebrity chefs.

The language of love and infatuation was presented beautifully by author Robert Dessaix in What Are Days For. Keeping It Real: Realistic Issues in Young Adult Fiction was discussed by Young Adult authors: Laurie Halse Anderson, Melina Marchetta, Erin Gough and Barry Jonsberg. In Family Matters authors Kate Grenville, Barrie Cassidy and Ramona Koval told of their experiences on the ethics of writing about family for memoir. While in The World In Three Poets, acclaimed poets Les Murray, David Malouf and Ben Okri wove their spell with the music and beauty of words in rhythmic lines.

Each written form and genre can be relevant to commercial writing because each can fire the imagination and inspire a new perspective that can be adapted, repurposed or simply used as a muse. In the business of copywriting, we write stories for many brands across diverse industry sectors and forms. Whether it’s a headline, a new product or an engaging story about a service, communication wears many hats and has many voices that can either reach the high notes of soprano or be way off key. Take food; according to Rick Stein, when writing a menu it’s about getting emotional meaning into a small space, which is a bit like writing a headline or a new product name.

It’s good practice to read across all genres in order to improve your writing, and to discover what kind of stories lull you. You will notice that each form has its own unique language. Young Adult fiction is a prime example; this age group share a very specific language. Barry Jonsberg said when he read about a group of teen boys in a sports locker room telling each other to “Rack off!” he knew instinctively this wasn’t the language they would really use, but was the result of a publisher’s conservative editing! I take my cues from dialogue in fiction; finding the right tone of a person’s authentic voice is a little like finding the right voice for a brand. Does it ring true or sound fake?

Developing fictive characters is similar to building brands. Like characters, brands have shape, personality, and are all very different; some use humour and sarcasm, some seduce, while others are serious. They spring into life when they speak – visually and verbally. Award-winning author Laurie Halse Anderson said that during the process of writing a novel, the story begins when the characters begin to whisper to her. While I don’t claim to have experienced brands actually whisper to me, I love the sentiment.

Poetry, in all its flowery mystery and romance, may seem like an irrelevant or inaccessible form. And yet, as Ben Okri so eloquently defined it: “poetry is the beauty of simple things that tell the truth of human experience.” It’s not all romance and flowers either, Australian poet Les Murray talks about taboos such as depression and autism. Poetry is a way of expressing reality in all its beauty, ugliness and difficulty.

As Okri said:

“We name the world with words. Words have a great impact on our consciousness. They spark the imagination, and have a magnifying effect.”

 

This blog post was written and published on behalf of Zadro: http://zadroagency.com.au/marketing/we-name-the-world-with-words

 

A Dollar A Day

Every day I drop a dollar in the homeless man’s hat.

The chink-clink of the coin is a sign that hearts are alive.

It’s the dog that pulls at our purse strings. Little Jack Russell

in her pink woolly jumper curled in his lap, head bowed

like his. A life of luxury awaits with one of the ladies

in lipstick and high heels, who bend to pat her and

chat to her master at Central Station. Always a fresh

bowl of biscuits but no warm bed.

 

As autumn falls breath steams in the cool morning air,

she needs that jumper but his is stained and threadbare,

like his life, caught in the crevice of society. It could happen

to anyone who falls off the edge when there’s no-one to catch

them. I imagine my nails that grubby, my hair that messy,

half moons under my eyes that black. Is my dollar a day enough?

It does little to ease my sorrow for this man and his dog, as I huddle

into my cashmere coat I’m grateful for the gifts of my own life.

 

There’s a man on every corner at Central Station, many lives frayed.

If every passerby spared a dollar a day to one man would that

be enough? Yesterday he was frisked by police, the dog watched

helplessly, in her pink coat, along with other voyeurs, wondering,

he hitched up his tatty jeans and buckled his belt. Did they find

the magic dollar in his pocket, the winning lotto ticket —

an escape to dignity, warmth and freedom?

 

I’m searching for a happy ending but I only have a dollar a day.

 

 

David, Goliath and Book Geeks

When I visited Berlin a few years ago I stood in the same square where the Nazis burned all the ‘unGerman’ books back in 1933 and was profoundly shocked and saddened by this intolerance, and deliberate destruction of education, creativity and knowledge. But books don’t die.

Helen Keller, one of the authors whose books were burned sent a letter to the Nazis:

“You can burn my books… but the ideas in them have seeped through a million channels and will continue to quicken other minds.” 

Yet Ray Bradbury said we may as well burn our books because nobody reads them anymore. With the explosion of consumerism the humble book is the David next to the Goliath of the entertainment world; it pales into insignificance, lacking the visual bells and whistles of cinema, CGI, TV and gaming.

After all, why spend twenty hours reading when you can watch the story depicted on a big screen in the time it takes to devour a large popcorn? Because reading ignites your imagination, it takes time, patience and concentration – qualities lacking in today’s mad dash on the infernal treadmill to nowhere.

Even those who do read tend towards ebooks. It’s easy to see the benefits: accessibility, cheaper cost, lightweight for travelling and anonymity (nobody can see that trashy novel you’re reading). There’s even the argument of them being better for the environment than paper books. I guess that’s true but aren’t the decline in readers together with the popularity of ebooks the reason why book shops and libraries are dying a slow death? And you can’t read an ebook in the bath, on the beach, or get it signed for that matter.

That’s why I stubbornly stick to the old-fashioned geeky paper book. Am I a nostalgic old fart hankering for the ‘good old days’? Maybe. Or did I press the time machine button and pop up in the wrong generation? Quite possibly, but it’s the tactile feel and smell of the paper, of the indelible inky words that appeal to me. I love to browse the silent aisles of libraries and the musty second-hand book shops – to be transported into another world – to sink into a snot-green velvet op shop armchair with an antique hard back while the vintage record player crackles and croons. Flicking through book cover designs, battered spines and yellowy curled pages gives me great pleasure and peace. I treasure things that possess a story and history of their own. Plus they decorate my shelves beautifully.

So, what does the future hold for the humble book?  Has reading really had its day or will book geeks enjoy a revival of being ‘on trend’?

Doesn’t David conquer Goliath with his little catapult and stone?

Ode to New Year

 

Like the first bud bursting in spring

like dawn’s chorus that sweetly sings

like a baby’s first surprised breath

like a crisp white page, the papery possibilities

of a new year hold hope in hearts

like the smell of earthy air after rain,

like plunging into salty ocean on a summer’s day.

 

Aren’t these blessings enough? Isn’t waking alive

each morning to the sun rising enough to satiate our desires?

To wake happy and peaceful is a wish the whole world shares.

Why make more goals to break by February?

They steer us in the right direction, inspire change,

wipe away gritty disappointments, grey failures,

with the promise that this year, this year will be different.

 

As the frenzied year trembles to its elliptical end

at the chime of midnight, as the fireworks light the sky

be thankful to be here, to celebrate, embrace,

drink your wishes like wine with eyes tight closed,

as if it this year was your last.

 

Timely words are works of art

I’m not a religious person yet I love to observe the constant changing of messages on my local church’s billboard. I admire their flair for humour and creativity. This week says:

Timely words are works of art

What kinds of words are timely? And what makes them works of art?

I did a little brainstorm (free writing exercise) and these are some of the first things that flowed from my pen:

I love you.

Will you marry me.

It’s a girl.

It’s a boy.

Let me help you.

Everything will be fine.

 

To me timely words are those that stop you in your tracks. Emotive and unforgettable words associated with life’s defining moments, committed to memory, never to be erased. But timely words can also be words that are spoken at the right time; to calm, correct, warn or cheer.

I’m not sharing everything I wrote with you because the whole point of free writing is to write without censoring, without being politically correct – as if nobody else will read it. This makes a big difference to what we write and is really effective in freeing up blockages and allowing creativity to blossom.

I encourage you to try a little free writing. You may be surprised at what emerges:

  1. Write the phrase on your notepad: “Timely words are works of art”.
  2. Sit quietly and try to clear your head of thoughts. I know, easier said than done! You could try focusing on your breathing, doodling or visualising a stunning sunrise — everyone has their own method of getting into the quiet zone.
  3. Then write (with a pen rather than typing on a computer) the first thing that comes to mind about the phrase: “Timely words are works of art” and see what occurs. Tip: don’t worry if you wander off topic.

Share if you dare. I’d love to hear your interpretation of timely words and how they are works of art.

See the world through fresh eyes

“Your eyes are the window to your soul.”
~ William Shakespeare

Eyes are often the first thing you notice about a person. But are your own eyes clear and sparkly, or blinkered and short-sighted? Are they enough to view the world around you? Or do you need more scope and influence; a fresh pair of eyes through which to experience the world?

I do. That’s why I read; to dive into someone else’s reality (or fantasy world). It feeds my soul and thirst for new experiences. That’s why I surround myself with people who offer a different view of the world; whom I can learn from. As the great CS Lewis said:

“My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of another. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like a night sky in the Greek poem I see with a myriad of eyes. But it is still I who see.”

Whose eyes would you like to see the world through?