Late last year I was honored to be asked to present a talk for young women from different backgrounds to hear from women who have taken different roads to leadership in their own lives.
The idea was to share our personal stories and in doing so demonstrate how non linear our paths were. We wanted to be able to share our experiences and to show there is no ‘one’ way to lead, but many.
I felt inspired as I left, by the energy, potential and wisdom of these exceptional young women I met.
The notes below are a transcript of my talk from the evening:
I feel deeply honoured to have been asked to share my journey and some of my experiences of leadership with you.
Eight years ago I was 35, I was living in a beautiful house in Melbourne, Australia where I’d been living in for the past 8 years and I read a poem called 'The Journey' by Mary Oliver. As I read, there was a deep realisation that just about everything in my life was about to and needed to change.
It wasn't so much a decision I was making, it was more an acceptance of what my heart had been telling me for quite some time.
Two years later, having given up my job, I put all my belongings on a container and moved back to the UK. I had no job, no house, no partner and no real idea what I was going to do.
What I’d like to share with you this evening is some of the journey, that took me from where I grew up, via Melbourne to where I am now.
Not in any way to give you advice, because for each of us, our journey is going to be unique.
What I’m hoping to show is that leadership’s not a linear one path.
It’s not a destination we get to I believe it’s a choice we make on a daily basis to live our lives with love, instead of fear.
I found it so interesting, in thinking about this evening to go back over some of the key stages in my life and 3 things immediately emerged:
1. The first is that when I look back, I can see a really clear thread that links where I started to where I am now. It’s like looking back through a wood and I can clearly see the traces of each decision I’ve made. Yet at the time it felt like anything but a clear path. It felt meandering, full of confusion and wrong turns. I spent a lot of my 20s and 30s not really feeling like I knew what I was doing and that the way my life was evolving was somehow out of my control. I felt a huge pressure to conform and to live up to other people’s expectations.
2. The second is that, for most of my 20s I was motivated more by fear than I was by what I loved. I’ve limited myself through my own untrue and limiting assumptions far more than I’ve ever been limited by others. My journey’s been one of developing confidence in my ability to think for myself and make decisions that are right for me. The more I’ve done this, the more trust and confidence I’ve had in the decisions I’ve made. It’s only now I have the courage to live my life from a place of love, rather than fear. I now let what I love, be what I do.
3. The third is that my leadership journey seems to have changed from defining leadership as being all about running large teams and wanting to change the world in some way to a much quieter sense of leadership. To me now leadership’s about creating the conditions for other people to thrive. It’s about teaching, listening, connecting & helping others in a way that’s aligned to what I do best. I’ve gone from needing to change and fix everyone else to realising that I had to lead my own life well first. I couldn’t give what I didn’t have and for a lot of my 20s I was leading from a place where I didn’t feel like I was ready or in any way enough. For me this has been a journey of letting go…of things that weren’t working, of my own limiting assumptions and of being honest about what success and leadership are for me.
I’d like to now share 3 key turning points in my life that have supported my journey & highlight a few lesson I’ve learned along the way.
Key turning point 1: Decision to leave the Royal Navy
When I finished University I had no idea what I was going to do.
So, I chose what I thought would be hardest as at this stage I assumed if something was hard and challenging, it was probably worthwhile and worth putting myself through.
It was as if I needed to prove to myself that I could succeed even in environments that were not aligned to who I was.
So, against both logic & advice, I joined the Royal Navy. An odd choice for someone who gets sea sick on a ferry, who has never liked taking direction and for someone who’s fiercely independent.
I was motivated though by a desire to be part of something bigger than me. I was tempted by the rigour and the challenge of the training and I liked the idea of having a secure well-paid role. I thought if anyone knew about leadership it would be the military.
I functioned pretty well in the Navy, I was commissioned at 21, got a first class pass in my fleet board exams and learned a huge amount about teams, collaboration, communication and personal discipline.
Fundamentally, and unsurprisingly there were many things about the military that didn’t sit comfortably with me. One day I sat and looked out to sea. I somehow knew that for to stay in I was going to have to stop being me. I was going to have to stop asking questions that challenged people, I was going to have to lead in a way that didn’t resonate with me, I was going to have to let go of something that felt essential to my sense of self and the sacrifice felt too much. At that stage, I couldn’t have told you exactly what it was that I felt I was sacrificing but I knew the trade-off was coming at too high a price.
Key turning point 2: Learning to think for myself
Releasing Untrue limiting assumptions
he second turning point came about 10 years later. In between leaving the Royal Navy I’d done a variety of roles – always leading teams including for the Princes Trust, I ran a restaurant for the Duke & Duchess of Bedford and after travelling in Australia I got a junior leadership role at one of the largest wine companies in the world.
Through a very loose connection I found myself working in an amazing organisation for one of the best leaders in the industry. I stayed there and over 7 years worked my way up to the senior leadership team. I was the only female on the Executive team and the youngest by about 15 years.
By this stage to the outside world I looked pretty successful. I had a great job with loads of autonomy, I worked with lovely people and I got to focus on my own and other people’s development. I was leading teams as well as helping to set the company direction. I was also being paid exceptionally well.
I remember though one night sat at home surrounded by all the trappings of success I’d worked so hard for. As I looked around I knew it wasn’t enough.
My life was empty of the very things & connections that made it worthwhile. I had prioritised my job and my need for financial security to such an extent that there was very little time or energy for anything else.
So I asked myself what turned out to be a really important question. I asked, ‘when will enough be enough?
When would I have enough money and enough financial security to stop it being a motivator for me?’
Really though I was asking myself the more fundamental question - ‘when will I be enough, when will I truly feel like I’m ready?’
Up to this stage I was motivated by what I wasn’t, by a fear of not being good enough and I knew this wasn’t the basis on which I wanted to live my life.
I was in my mid 30s though now and I was still asking myself the same questions…
What difference did I want to make it the world?
How and what did I want to lead?
Did I want to meet someone? Have kids?
Where did I want to live?
During this time I read a book that it is no exaggeration to say has changed my life. That book was called Time to Think and in it, Nancy Kline put into words a way of being in the world that for me felt totally aligned to who I was and how I wanted to lead.
I learned in this book and then on the courses I attended about untrue and limiting assumptions and the role they’d being playing in my life and how I’d been keeping myself safe by playing small. I learned how to think for myself and to challenge my own assumptions about life, leadership, success and happiness.
If you take nothing else away from my talk this evening, I hope you remember how important it is for you to learn to think for yourself. Nothing in my schooling, family or work environments ever taught to me to do this well. Working out what I wanted and leading my life free from limiting assumptions has been transformational.
Key turning point 3: Enough..
So my third turning point was when I got back to the UK I decided work for myself doing the work I love.
The first few years were slow and quite hard, but I met some really great people who were further along the path of self employment than me. I focused on being an exceptional teacher and running my business from a place of my values so putting kindness, generosity and gratitude at the centre of my planning & delivery and I said yes to things way before I really felt ready.
I’m now in my 6th year of working for myself. I never intended to be self employed but I’ve found that sweet spot of doing something I love, that people want and need and that allows me to live and lead from a place of integrity.
Self employment isn’t for everyone. There is no security, no safety net and no guarantees but I honestly can’t imagine doing anything else.
So to finish, I’d like to leave you with an idea and a question.
The idea is about seeds, vs switches
So often in our society we’re looking for quick fixes, ‘switches’. We want to quickly make changes. To stop or start feeling something and we look for the easiest way to achieve this. Seeds on the other hand take time to nurture and grow. They often have long gestation periods and we don’t always know how they’re going turn out.
When I look back at me in my 20s, I was constantly looking for a quick fix or instant answer to my big questions. I’d switch between ideas, jobs & other people’s advice. I was constantly on the lookout for the one thing that would change everything.
It’s so seductive to believe we can make instant changes that will have life changing results.
I thought if I just found the right switch all would be well, and I’d be happy and fulfilled and making a real difference in the world.
I was constantly looking ‘out there’ instead of in here for a solution.
What I’ve discovered though is about the importance of seeds.
Seeds are things that are so intrinsic to us that we can’t imagine ourselves without them.
For me the seeds were always there – to help others, to know I valued people far more than I ever valued money, to listen, to love, to cultivate kindness, wisdom and compassion. For you they’ll be different. Seeds are planted at the very heart of us, they are what make us who we are and we need to nurture them over time.
Some of the things I seeded in my 20s and 30s are only now coming to fruition.
Every experience I’ve had, even the ones that have challenged the very core of who I am has helped me work out which seeds I wanted to nurture and which I needed to quietly let go of.
The joy is this tending never stops. I’m nurturing seeds that I hope I’ll get to tend for the rest of my life. The joy is in the doing, not necessarily in the achieving and some of these ideas might not even come to fruition in my lifetime, but they just might do so in yours or in my daughters. It took me 20 years to realise that leadership’s not about me and it never was.
So the question I’d like to leave you with this evening is:
(All photos taken by the amazing Eve Hopkinson Photography - www.evehopkinsonphotography.co.uk)