Like so many systemic problems in our society, the questions we ask around mental health far outweigh the answers we fall back on. Are you really okay? Are we really okay? What can we do to be better?
Why do 20% of us experience a mental illness in any year? Even prior to a global pandemic, we were experiencing a mental health epidemic. In order to seek out intelligent answers these questions, I spoke with Dawn O’Neil AM. Dawn is the former CEO of Beyond Blue and Lifeline Australia.
One of the things Dawn taught me that really resonated was that building resilience is not a one person job, nor a one solution strategy. Resilience takes multiple conversations, many different approaches and a host of people working together. Dawn introduced me to her mental health Five Finger Support Strategy – some of the best advice I’ve ever had, and an idea I now use daily.
It’s important to challenge the idea that being resilient falls entirely on one’s own shoulders. Rather than just expecting ourselves to ‘be more resilient’, how do we develop a set of resilience tools and relationships in order to bring that reality to life?
‘One of the strategies I love thinking about is our hand, and how we care for something by wrapping all of our fingers around it. Having one strategy is not enough. To me, our five fingers represent the need to have five support strategies to help us stay mentally healthy.’ – Dawn O’Neil
Dawn speaks with the insight of someone who has spent more time listening than talking throughout her life. She points out that even for many of us who would consider ourselves mentally healthy, we exist on a sliding scale of wellness. Acute or chronic stress, brought on by something like a pandemic, can have the ability at any time to render our coping mechanisms null and void. When this happens, underlying issues of anxiety or depression that we may have normalised through routine coping strategies get thrown out of whack.
Dawn says that the strategies that form the ‘Five Finger Support Strategy’ model of wellbeing will shift and change depending on the circumstance and challenges faced, the key being the use of multiple approaches. When the COVID pandemic took hold of the world it brought a degree of focus to mental health and strategies for dealing with stress.
Why not try the Five Finger Support Strategy yourself?
One of the favourite activities in The Leading Edge 28 Day Challenge has been building this strategy… what an easy way to ask yourself “Are you okay?” everyday.
1) Write down your social wellbeing habit: How are you keeping in touch with people through face-to-face contact, phone calls, a text message or social media? Connection is critical to wellbeing.
2) Write down your time out habit: What are your time out mechanisms to break up the routine? Whether it’s from long stints sitting down on your computer, endless zoom calls, or extended time in close proximity with other people. Scheduling time out will help shift your mood, energy, headspace.
3) Write down your “exer-scapism” habit: Managing a build-up of stress and anxiety can be helped by exercising or escaping via an activity such as dance, singing, or yoga.
4) Write down your mindfulness habit: Be more present and engaged in life. Your strategy may be as simple as ten deep breaths, or may incorporate ideas such as self talk, journaling, single tasking, mindful eating or mindful acknowledgement of nature.
5) Write down your kindness habit: How are you showing up for others? How are you reaching out, giving support or doing something generous for a neighbour? Never forget that simple acts of kindness make us feel good about ourselves, the world and the future.
As leaders, we must be able to navigate our own mental health in order to recognise, destigmatise and model healthy behaviours for those around us. All too often, we have a ‘one strategy’ approach to helping people through adversity. For example, when I ask leaders what practical mental health support they have in place, an employee assistance program (EAP) phone line is often the only thing they can reference. Yet we know that while mental health costs Australian businesses $12.8 billion annually, only 4.4 per cent of employees use their EAP service. I encourage you to wrap your hand around Dawn’s five-finger approach and know by heart the things that bring you back to yourself when you’re not feeling okay. Mental health is a sliding scale of wellness. And if we can start to self-correct on the smaller ebbs and flows, we will have strategies in place when the bigger punches of life occur. Just like you wouldn’t build a structure with a single support beam and expect such a structure to bear a load, nor should we expect single points of strength will support the weight of our struggles.
Dawn O’Neil AM and the ‘Five Finger Support Strategy’ feature in my book The Leading Edge, please head to the store on this website if you’d like me to send you a signed copy!
And remember, it’s also ok not to be ok this RUOK? Day. Call the Beyond Blue helpline on1300 22 4636 if you need to talk.
Everywhere we look, people are adjusting their behaviour, their businesses, their priorities and their mindsets. Globally, we have entered into unprecedented economic shutdown, social distancing and restrictions on global movement as we attempt to minimise the lives lost to the coronavirus pandemic. Adversity challenges us to innovate: to develop novel, value-adding responses to new circumstances. As we adjust our rhythms to a new world order it’s becoming increasingly important that we think about innovation not as a response required in the short-term to COVID-19, but as a response imperative to our future beyond COVID-19. Though few things in life are certain, change is. And the world is changing and will be required to change when we emerge from the pandemic, in such a profound manner that ‘business as usual’ will be relegated to the history books.
To the entrepreneurs, the change-makers and the brave decision-makers out there, we need your radical ideas in these unparalleled times.
So far, visible innovation has manifested mostly in the way we are responding to change. We are now harnessing underutilised methods we have had at our disposal for decades: open-source R&D collaboration; rapid technology adoption, and; the mobilisation of collective action. While it may be tempting to hunker down and wait for COVID-19 to roll over us, we know that innovation thrives in adversity. So let’s get moving.
Companies that last year reported billion-dollar revenues like General Electric (1892), General Motors (1908) and IBM (1911) began in the turmoil of economic downturn and consumer panic. The Great Depression gave rise to Disney (1929), while the 1958 Recession proved a successful launchpad for Hyatt (1957). Google (1998), Salesforce (1999) and Facebook (2004) were each pioneered just prior to various economic meltdowns but had the courage to persevere and build empires out the other side. Similarly, Australia has historically punched above its weight in terms of invention with black box flight recorders, medical penicillin, the pacemaker, google maps and even wifi. Our relative isolation, supply chain restriction and culture of curiosity have historically served us well.
What plausible advantages does the adversity we are currently facing bring?
Open source R&D collaboration
The knowledge economy has received much-needed investment in the form of open-source collaboration with government, industry and education institutions working together. New channels of information sharing have been activated by some of the globe’s leaders: MIT Sloan professors have convened to rapidly develop, vet, and deliver policy proposals for use by state and federal governments under the COVID-19 Policy Alliance. Africa’s innovation incubator, CcHub, is offering funding and engineering support to COVID-19 tech projects aimed at curbing social and economic impact. The Australian government has put a call out to businesses for expressions of interest to supply swabs for COVID-19 testing. Canada’s Plan to Mobilize Industry activates businesses to rapidly scale up production or re-tool their manufacturing lines to develop products in the fight against COVID-19. We’ve needed this cross-sector collaboration for a long time.
While typically, bureaucracy gets in the way of lean and agile innovation, red tape is being cut to fast-track novel solutions to the COVID-19 crisis. Yesterday, Australia’s Federal Government has partnered with Australian software giant Atlassian and Facebook to unveil two new information services for people to receive official COVID-19 updates. The Singaporean Government has made its tracing software freely available to developers worldwide. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has released all medical research articles in machine-readable form. MyGov India has opened a crowd-sourcing COVID-19 challenge to the tech community. Italian engineers at startup Issinova built a prototype at pace to reverse engineer 3-D printing of respirator venturi valves. Another one to watch: the new Australian Space Agency is collaborating with NASA in a ‘grand challenge’ to develop the best open-source design for a rapidly producible ventilator.
At the University of Queensland, scientists and researchers are working around the clock to develop a coronavirus vaccine. With a combined $16.5 million in funding, the University of Queensland along with its research partners, The Doherty Institute and CSIRO, are promoting innovation beyond their science. Collectively with big pharma companies and government policy, they are dismantling the traditional linear pipeline of vaccine development based on plotted milestone checkpoints. Instead, they are working to a parallel model, simultaneously stacking development phases for a far shorter delivery timeline.
At a policy-innovation level, we need creative strategies for two economies of scale – emotional shock and the shock of job loss. While the Australian government is pulling the traditional fiscal policy levers in an attempt to minimise economic ramifications that many have already described as being markedly worse than the GFC (IMF), what would true policy innovation look like? A global living wage for example? A redesign of the way government does business to be leaner, more agile, and citizen-centric? Or even more radically, a new approach to the disconnect in decision-making between the Federal Government and the States? While these ideas may not prove viable, discussions and debates of this nature would surely prove fruitful.
Social license and ethical investment to redefine the role of business
In living memory, there has never been a time where the link between business sustainability and social/environmental responsibility has been clearer. In response, we see businesses reinventing their role in society. Zara has started to make scrubs for Spain’s coronavirus stretched hospitals. Lululemon temporarily shuts down all stores in North America but continues to pay employees. Microsoft commits to pay its hourly workers their regular pay, even as demand for their services slows. Walmart, Apple, and the Olive Garden update their sick-leave policies to provide additional coverage and support for their most vulnerable workers. Amazon announced a $5 million relief fund for small businesses in the vicinity of its headquarters. While Google is pledging $1 million to organisations locally in California impacted by the pandemic. In Australia, companies like Telstra take a multi-stakeholder approach, issuing a hold on planned job reductions, providing assistance packages to consumer and small business customers, activating provision of unlimited data allowances, providing extra mobile data for small business customers and extra paid leave for Telstra employees and casuals.
Unfortunately, we don’t have to look far to see examples of less-than-ethical business practices. Four industry super funds with combined assets of more than $180 billion are potentially invoking pandemic exclusion clauses which could see members not covered for adverse effects suffered due to coronavirus. Kathmandu is another disappointing example. As an entity recording an after-tax profit of $57.6m, Kathmandu has chosen to stand down most of its staff without pay for the next four weeks. Many other businesses are standing down or making redundant thousands of employees across Australia this week. So, where is the innovation in such negative examples? Hopefully, the innovation will be a new yardstick for corporate social responsibility. Consistent with belief-driven buyers featuring as a trend in Edelman’s 2018/19 reports, it is no longer about what companies preach when the sea is calm, it’s about the stuff they are made of when times are challenging or political.
Rapid technology adoption pushes creativity within communication
As humans, our ability to cope with trauma depends largely on how we integrate the experience into a narrative. Consistent messaging in crises plays a key role in obtaining the public’s trust and co-operation. Politicians are innovating communication strategies to level with their people. The Norwegian Prime Minister, Erna Solberg, conducted a press conference purely to answer questions from kids. Jacinda Ardern live-streamed New Zealanders on Facebook in her trackies (apologising that putting toddlers to bed is a messy business) before answering questions coming in on the live feed. Boris Johnson took to twitter immediately upon being diagnosed with coronavirus to reassure Brits and urge them to follow the recommended measures. South Korean President Moon Jae-in communicated coronavirus information early and consistently to inspire a “wartime sense of purpose”, enabling public ‘sense-making’ to occur. Each of these examples represents a willingness to innovate new responses, to use existing tools for new measures.
As #WFH becomes an acronym rapidly transforming our working lives, companies producing collaborative software solutions are reporting skyrocketing growth. The publicly traded Zoom conferencing platform has seen stocks rise, downloaded over 50 million times in recent weeks. While Fardad Zabetian, founder of the multilingual web conferencing platform Kudo estimates his business has increased 400% since COVID-19 began to spread. Microsoft’s Teams now has more than 44 million daily users, growing by about 12 million users in just seven days. Slack co-founder, and CEO Stewart Butterfield said Slack is developing voice technology to integrate with Teams. Once completed, Slack users will be able to make calls directly to Teams users without leaving the platform. The innovation we need to see though, as governments, education institutions and businesses scramble to take their operations online, are new methods of privacy, security and information protection. Governance, as so often the case, is already lagging behind civic reliance.
While the plethora of examples of technology adoption do not represent innovative new products as such, our fresh ability to harness technological innovation provides the opportunity for new product testing. For years, we have espoused “whole-of-self”, “flexible work practices” and “work-life integration.” Covid-19 has forced employers and employees alike to meet halfway on the benefits and challenges of remote working. Tolerance for flexible work schedules by employers is being met by greater productivity accountability on the part of employees. Already embedded tools surely have scope to innovate productivity measures enabling data for performance reviews. A new exposure of the messy realities of our home-lives (kids, dogs and washing featuring behind us in zoom windows) has been met with an escalation of downloadable virtual conferencing backgrounds. Though strangely, these intimate insights into the lives of our co-workers do not seem to inspire judgment. Instead, this collective challenge is causing us to be more inclusive. Wouldn’t it be great if this empathy lasted longer than the virus isolation period?
Mental Health is emerging as a key driver of new communication methods. Salesforce found 36 percent of the workforce were experiencing mental health challenges as a result of COVID-19. “And those are the ones who are willing to admit it,” says Marc Benioff, chief executive and co-founder. “We’re starting a daily mental health call, to encourage daily prayer meditation and mindfulness.”
In Australia, organisations like Beyond Blue, headspace and Black Dog Institute have been on the front foot, going digital and deep with openly available mental health tools and self-care strategies. Global agencies have integrated mental health considerations within their public response, as explained by Aiysha Malik, a Technical Officer at the World Health Organization’s Mental Health and Substance Use Department in a live-streamed Q&A session this week. Some mental health apps are offering extended services such as talkspace, now including a Covid anxiety management program free to subscribers. But as social video app downloads explode around the world, where are the innovations with regards to, say, digital consumption alerts, collective habit-building facilitation, or group exercising apps? Could companies partner with mental health programs and startup developers to develop new products to tackle isolation and loneliness, beyond EAP?
Mobilisation of the collective
Communities have been fast to innovate new ways to connect emotionally. Italy kicked off a counter-viral COVID-19 attack on social with #ItalyStayStrong visuals of people singing from their balconies spread across Europe and the world. The #ApplauseForMedicalWorkers hashtag has also captured public sentiment globally as communities realise the sacrifice front-line public servants are making for the collective good. Many small businesses such as yoga studios are taking their offering online and reducing subscription or offering free sessions. Organisations, membership groups and friendship circles alike are implementing virtual chats, drinks, dinner parties (where a common recipe is sent around) and even Facebook dance parties (fancy dress non-optional!).
Leadership is also taking on a new form within families, neighbourhoods and communities. Grandparents are zooming grandkids to help teach reading, maths and craft. Neighbours are leaving notes in letterboxes offering to help buy groceries for medications those more vulnerable. Communities are paying it forward to local small businesses and entrepreneurs, buying coffees, meals, classes and artisan wares in advance to keep them afloat for the future. In Australia, CEOs of supermarkets have created special community hours dedicated to elderly people and healthcare workers. It seems a broader model is developing for distributed kindness, linked possibly to a new understanding of the benefits of distributed wealth. In times of uncertainty, trust becomes the currency we all rely upon.
There is so much inspiration to be drawn from COVID-19. Not least, the innovation of how we connect our ‘me’ narrative to our ‘we’ narrative. Companies, entrepreneurs, idea-generators and everyone in between. We have entered a moment in time where the rules are changing, our needs are shifting, new behaviours are emerging. There has never been a better time to bring lean, agile, scalable ideas to the fore. As individuals, if we can change our own deepest, most innate habits, expectations, entitlements and biases, then as a group we can change anything.
The legacy we pass on to future generations will inevitably involve challenges, but must not be founded in hopelessness. The least we can do is track a road forward, most of all when the decisions of leaders seem to signal a dead end.
Interviewing former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other prominent leaders as MC for the Professional Convention Managers Association (PCMA) in San Francisco this month, we discussed how to move forward when the stakes are high and the path is unclear. Ultimately, she said, “you have to keep your wits about you, you have to trust your instincts and your gut, and those around you. You have to make the decisions, because not making a decision is making a decision.”
As the youth of today see the news of devastating bush fires in Australia, read the twitter trail of a global leader spreading divisive ideology across the world, experience underemployment even in the most developed countries, we can understand why statistics show an estimated 10–20% of adolescents globally experience mental health conditions (World Health Organisation, 2019). Add to this, almost half of all millennials think it’s more likely than not there will be a third world war in their lifetime, a new Red Cross surveyfinds. Are we going to let history write the future?
As a leader of today, Rice is clearly focused on empowering the leaders of tomorrow. She emphasises the need for those in charge to demonstrate trust in their people by delegating and investing in training. ‘We must allow them to colour outside the lines’ she says.
Can we imagine a democracy wherein the government actively comes to the youth for ideas, for better questions, even for solutions? I have been fortunate to have seen the success of initiatives such as the G20 Youth Summit in action. I believe there is so much to be gained in bringing different voices together to explore collaborative policy design and development. So long as we are clear on who our decisions are serving…
How does our democracy serve us?
“We are only as strong as our weakest link” says Rice. And I wonder, what if our weakest link is in fact, a democratically elected leader? Democracy operates at its best when functioning as a platform for ideas, dialogue and debate. Democracy is founded not on consensus, but contention. As famously penned by Evelyn Beatrice Hall (and often mis-attributed to Voltaire!), ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’ (1906).
When uncertainty is not met with curiosity but fear, democracy dies just a little. When injustice is met with depression and apathy rather than anger and outcry, democracy dies a little more. When our very existence is threatened by convenience and we continue on in indifference, then ‘democracy grief’ is real. The question is not how democracy is serving us, but how we are serving our democracy. “You can get through difficult times, but it doesn’t happen magically,” Rice says. She claims she doesn’t look to Washington or state government to take responsibility, but asks herself daily: “What am I doing to take responsibility?”
Like the air we breathe.
For those of us living in western countries, it is too easy to take liberal democracy for granted. Just as we are accustomed to each intake of clean air, each glass of pure drinking water, each child off to school and each purchase of the morning paper, the convenient assumption that we are free to express ourselves and steer our own course is pervasive. But is it true?
Democracy brings us convenience. But it’s a convenience built on consumption. And while we are consumed with consuming, we can’t step back with the objectivity, awareness and space to change our behaviour- our addiction to this convenient life.
What the young leaders of today are calling for is a new kind of democracy. One far more agile, active and connected at grass roots level. One typified by leadership that exhibits empathy and compassion, and is prepared to pioneer new policies and new ways of evaluating democratic health, like the government Jacinda Ardern is leading in New Zealand. One that is less lumbering, less strung out on political puppetry, one that doesn’t rely on never-ending growth to achieve the votes that will drive it forward. But globally, where is the alternative to growth? What is the political paradigm that will support this democracy of the future?
‘Democracy is like a muscle’ writes Carol Rose in the Boston Globe this month. ‘The more we exercise it, the stronger it gets.’ (Carol Rose, Boston Globe, 2019). As we move into 2020 and our own inconvenient truth becomes harder to ignore, I wonder, when was the last time many of us felt the energy of youth to fight against what has gone before? Where is the will to dismiss the diary appointments for today and instead dial up the challenge to the status quo – even when this status quo is paying down the credit card? Where does the will for activism come from?
Rice’s experience has given her perspective on the difficulties the nation faces today. In our interview she says, “I know it is a tough time, but we have been through tougher.” To be open when the inclination is to shut off, to take a risk when a calculated decision is impossible and to hope against despair – that is the legacy we need to leave the future generations.
Linguistically, democracy contains the idea of demonstration. So if nothing else, let us shake off the shackles of convenience and demonstrate our hope for the future.
Tech-optimist? Tech-pessimist? Tech-pragmatist? …Where do you sit?
Every day, we read about mind-bending new technologies
or innovative workplace practices on one hand, and stories of mismatched skills
being taught to young people or significant workforce retrenchments on the
other. So how do we separate the theatre from the threats and chart a path
forward? What are the major considerations we need to be turning our attention
to when it comes to the ‘nature’ of technology?
This was exactly the focus of my conversation when I interviewed former US Ambassador to Australia (and namesake of the Jeff Bleich Centre for Digital Technologies, Security and Governance) Jeffrey Bleich. Throughout our conversation, I was struck by his pragmatism, his awareness of the complex implications of technology and his willingness to act. This, I believe, is the substance we need from our leaders – courageous individuals who are prepared to take it in, take it on, and take the best of humanity with them.
How do we think, truly broadly about the digital ecosystem?… We haven’t really thought about the fact that digital technology is changing the way people live, breathe, work, eat and think about their lives …Thinking of it as an ecosystem that is particularly challenging to democracies.
Here are four of the big ideas from our conversation:
Conversation #1: AI has arrived. Ethical guidelines
Scientists and AI experts agree that we are in a race
against time: we need to establish ethicalguidelines
to catch up to technology’s irreversible integration into our lives. In January
2019, Gartner reported that AI adoption tripled in the last year alone, with
an estimated 37% of firms now implementing AI in some form. In a recent Deloitte
survey, 76% of
executives said they expected AI to “substantially transform” their companies
within three years. Since 2017, more than two dozen national governments have
strategies or plans to
develop ethics standards, policies, and regulations.
The problem? No two strategies are alike. While some Principles may correspond, the context of issues such as ethics, privacy and bias all shift dramatically between countries and cultures. Major technology companies are ahead in the global race to develop ethical guidelines and AI governance teams. We see new partnerships between Facebook and the Technical University of Munich (TUM) forming The Institute for Ethics in Artificial Intelligence, with an initial investment of $7.5 million. Amazon and the National Science Foundation recently earmarked $10 million for AI fairness research. Unless governments can get ahead of rapid change, the rule-breakers will become the rule-makers.
In theory, global bodies such as the OECD have
gathered support for overarching Principles on AI. However,
in practice, governments,
corporations, academic and science communities pursue AI strategies that do not
relate to each other. So how can we
possibly figure out how they relate to us?
Jeffrey Bleich stressed the need for systems-thinking – to understand that nothing happens in isolation from this point on. Just as international laws around space or the oceans exist, global AI ethical standards are surely achievable?
Conversation #2: We need to see technology through a
Every single choice you make, every thought you have, every aspect of how you move through the world is being gathered in these devices and it’s being constantly updated in ways that can’t really be controlled by our current cyber security technologies… The fact that we’re not thinking in those terms, should concern all of us.
The next generation will need to see their world as a
whole system – a seamless interface, perhaps. This is true of digital
technology’s impact in our governance systems, our workplaces, our homes, our
own brains. We are hyper-connected and every day, less able to switch off. AI
is becoming so integrated in our world that we lose sight of where it starts
and stops. How many hours in your day are completely free from technological
interruption or influence? Even when you sleep, it’s likely your behaviour is
being tracked simply because you didn’t update your phone settings. When you
wake, do you take a moment to think ‘how do I feel?’ Or do you reach for a device
to find out? As we move through our days, are our choices arising internally
from a desire or an idea? Or are we behaving according to predictive (and
prescriptive) behaviour models?
And what exactly is an AI? There is no precise
and accepted definition of AI. Is it machine learning? If so, how developed? In
movies we know AI to be non-biological consciousness. Usually portrayed as a
single connected entity. But as we move incrementally along the journey we
struggle as citizens to understand what is going on behind the laboratory doors
of big tech companies. Let alone how our governments are regulating to protect
us. If AI poses a threat, it moves behind a cover of normalised convenience.
Conversation #3: We need to adjust our governance. In
our homes, workplaces and democracies.
When we think about governance, we think about what the government does… but governance is the set of norms that we all live by… some of it is training ourselves to be more aware of threats and to adjust our own behaviour.
Whether we think about privacy, security or
surveillance, we need to understand that the changes technology brings run
deep, and currently, largely run free. As we’re already seeing, digital
technology has the potential to fundamentally shift our trust in each other,
which gets to the core of relationships and the bedrock of our communities.
This new domain requires a rethink of governance and of leadership throughout
In our conversation, Jeff discusses the urgency with
which leaders need to be having more mature conversations. We need to be across
AI, automation, mobility, blockchain and education. Leaders need to get out
ahead of issues, developing policy for 3-5 years’ time, rather than arguing
about 5G or autonomous vehicles like we still have a choice.
Leadership is needed to ensure we don’t let digital
divide. The poorest communities stand to be most at risk from job loss, information
exclusion and limited connectivity. In parallel, autocratic countries are
finding technology a useful means to exert more control over citizens. Will we
have a cold war in cyber? Is technology borderless? Or will it create new
Conversation #4: Human agency is being impacted
I think humanity is going to be very different at the end of this century than it is right now. It’s a hard thing to contemplate but we will. We will be augmented by tools that we’ve developed… technologies that we’re already using, we are changing the way our brains are wired, the way we think about the world.
For most of us, in all our humanness at this time in
history, AI represents a mechanism by which our behaviours are grouped, sorted,
targeted and modulated by data intelligence. Technology was born to enhance our
lives and advance our impact, but conversely, as its influence on us grows, we
find ourselves ring fenced and judged by its learned assumptions. Who is dictating behaviour now?
Algorithms tend to move us iteratively toward our own
extremes. Here’s an example Jeff gave in the interview: When we decide to watch
a youtube video, the experience becomes mediated by the algorithm, showing us
options of further videos to watch. When we click on something, the technology
pigeon-holes us and begins to show us slightly more extreme versions of what it
thinks we may like. If you click on a dog, your next set of options will be
different sets of dogs. If you click on a small dog, pretty soon you’ll be
looking at those handbag-sized pooches. In this way, the human brain is guided
further down a path or our own bias. The internet (un)naturally tends towards
extremes, with a capacity to fool humanity into the worst of itself.
Finally, here’s some food for thought from the
inspiring Jeff Bleich that I’d love to challenge you to discuss with a friend
or colleague: “At what point do we lose our wonderful, messy humanity, our
story-telling, our mistakes, our illogical tears and become rational,
predictable, superficial versions of ourselves?”
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.