Be a leader: an AFLW Inspire story
By Andrea MacNamara, Jan 23, 2019 | #AFLW
Available at: https://womens.afl/discover/inspire/be-a-leader
Holly Ransom was a very active outdoors kind of kid, which is hardly surprising for someone who grew up in Perth. She went surfing whenever she could and played lots of sport. When she was eight, she wrote in her school scrapbook that she wanted to be a Brownlow Medallist. So it came as a shock a couple of years later to be told that girls weren’t allowed to play football any more – as far as she was concerned, she was a ten-year-old Auskicker looking for the next level.
‘I remember bursting into tears – I was devastated,’ Holly says. ‘It struck me as so weird that I wasn’t allowed to do something that my brothers could do.’
That was Holly’s first real experience of inequality, and it happened to be in relation to gender. In her adult working life, she has made it her business to be influential in ensuring that equality is on the agenda of decision makers, world-wide. In sport, for example, at 27 she was the youngest board member ever appointed by an AFL club (Port Adelaide) and she was on the advisory board for the launch of the AFL Women’s League.
Holly recalls a defining moment at school, something that really got her thinking about how our ideas of gender equality are formed. Her Year 5 teacher loved giving the students logic problems. They would finish the day with brain benders, like this:
A father and son are driving home from school, and just as they’re turning into a road near home, they’re hit by a reckless driver. The car spins. The boy is thrown out of the car, and his dad is trapped inside. Fortunately, a bystander sees it happen, calls an ambulance, and the kid is rushed to hospital. When they arrive, the surgeon swings open the doors, and declares, ‘That’s my son.’ How is that possible?
‘There were thirty-four of us in the class, with 15 minutes on the clock,’ Holly says. ‘Our best guess was that the boy must have had two dads. Not one of us thought that the surgeon was the boy’s mum. That’s such an interesting thing to look back on, that shift in thinking between ages 8 and 10, from believing I could be a Brownlow Medallist, to unconsciously self-selecting out mine and my gender’s ability to be in that sort of role.’
Holly had leadership roles on the sporting field at school, and naturally gravitated towards positions of responsibility, yet it took her a while to recognise her own potential to really make a difference. ‘I found I could rally the troops, and I’ve always been quite mature for my age,’ Holly says
‘The big change was when one of my teachers sent me on a leadership program that really challenged my idea of what a leader could look like. I thought you had to be older to have a real impact, yet there I was with these unbelievable 14 and 15 year olds for a week, and they were volunteer firefighters and running amazing aid projects; they were making a real difference in their communities and schools. I was the runt of that pack – not in a competitive sense, purely because I genuinely had no idea that this sort of thing was possible at our age.
‘At 15, the trajectory of my life was changed. I thought, I’m going to get out there and have a crack at some of the things I’ve been thinking about. I discovered that you can be a leader at any age, if you choose to take that word and own it.’ .
“At 15, the trajectory of my life was changed … I discovered that you can be a leader at any age, if you choose to take that word and own it.”
After school, Holly ended up with a Law degree and BA (Economics) with a minor in political science. ‘I always describe my life as having a really strong sense of direction but loose hold of the reins,’ she says. She couldn’t ever have predicted the roles and opportunities that have come her way.
Underlying those opportunities is the fact that Holly has known what she’s passionate about for a very long time. She is driven to:
- improve the lives of those less fortunate in our community, and generally raise the standard of living in our society
- provide a voice for people who are voiceless in our current systems
- engage other people in their ability to be agents of change.
But it’s all very well to have big aspirations. It’s much harder to actually make things happen. ‘I worked out early on that what you’re capable of doing as one person won’t even scratch the surface of what you can achieve if you mobilise a group of people. Very quickly, my focus became wanting to unlock other people’s capacity to believe in themselves as part of the change and the solution.’
“I worked out early on that what you’re capable of doing as one person won’t even scratch the surface of what you can achieve if you can mobilise a group of people.”
Holly’s impressive achievements, including her current role as CEO of her own company, Emergent, can be found here. Hers is an inspiring story of finding mentors and taking chances and learning from corporate stints at NAB and Rio Tinto, then choosing her own path. Her keynote speaking portfolio has taken her to six continents. She’s had many pinch-yourself moments with world leaders: she’s delivered a Peace Charter to the Dalai Lama, has chatted with Barack Obama about her work chairing the G20 Youth Summit, and hangs out with Richard Branson.
And yet behind the highlights reel, by 2013 Holly Ransom was struggling. She couldn’t sit still – she had to be constantly doing things, stuck on the hamster wheel. There were warning signs – little things, cracks appearing – but she was too busy bouncing off walls to notice them. Luckily, friends and a good GP told her she needed to take better care of herself, that she needed help. She was diagnosed with depression.
Like many people, at first Holly wondered why she couldn’t just push through. Then she approached the diagnosis with her typical tenacity. ‘I knew I wanted to come out the other side stronger than I’d ever been. I wanted to use the diagnosis as an opportunity to reset. I sought advice from people who had my best interests at heart and made significant changes to the way I lived and worked. I exercised more control over who I was surrounded by – who I was listening to and being influenced by. ‘That journey from depression is the hardest thing I’ve done and what I’m proudest of. I was terrified of talking out loud about it, because of the stigma attached to mental illness, but it was the story behind my first Ironman in December 2015, and I wanted to let people to know they’re not alone.’
“It can hurt you and upset you to hear people saying you can’t do something, but you have to believe in yourself.”
Ironman is a gruelling triathlon: a 3.8-kilometre swim in open water, a 180-kilomtre cycle and a 42-kilometre marathon. To build endurance fitness, you need to train around 20 hours a week. Holly wanted to set herself a big physical and mental challenge, to show herself that anything is possible. As ‘a prolific goal setter’, she was looking for something that would really test her, and with Ironman, she found a bottomless learning pit. ‘Every time I train, I learn something new about myself. So it has massive flow-on effects for the way I work. It energises me, and I’ve learnt to put training into my week as a priority.’
Holly doesn’t spend time reflecting on her past achievements – there’s far too much forward thinking to be done. And with a second Ironman under her belt, she knows anything is possible.