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In the Lead: Fabian Dattner


While in Melbourne for the 2018 Cornerstone Conference earlier this month, we sat down with IWF Australia Member Fabian Dattner.

Fabian is a leadership consultant and the co-founder of Homeward Bound, an initiative that takes women leaders in STEMM on expeditions to Antarctica and provides leadership development training.

Your organization, Homeward Bound, does some remarkable and unique work. Could you speak about what it is that you all are doing and the how and why behind your decision to launch such a project?

Homeward Bound is a 10-year leadership initiative for women with a STEMM background who are considering or are in leadership roles. The target is 1,000 women by 2026, all chosen because they have the track record to be ‘Bravemakers’, to make a difference, and to lead for the greater good. I dreamt (literally) of Homeward Bound in October 2015. The fuel for the vision was 30 years of facilitating leadership development in many different contexts and geographies, a decade of working with women in particular, and a growing anxiety about the state of our planet and the collapse of trust in the practice of leadership. I have come to believe that supporting women is not about fairness, although that matters; it is about our sustainability on our planet.

Key elements of Homeward Bound include selection of participants by alumni, a 10-month preparation program aimed at building skills around fundraising, trust, giving and receiving feedback, visibility and sense of self, and a two-day program prior to departure including a personal strategy sprint. Then on board, everyone gives a scientific presentation on their preferred domain (Symposium at sea), an action-focused gender think tank, and education of shared issues of concern globally.

We have a very big focus on creating a high profile global platform that all women can stand on and generate coverage for their cause, and our scientists and activists have used their platform to create great change.

Earlier this year Homeward Bound returned from the largest ever all-female expedition to the Antarctic. What was the expedition like? What were the takeaways? Are there plans to top this expedition with an even larger delegation?

It is a dramatic proposition to take 80 clever, committed women on a ship, isolated from everything we know – family, friends, pets, work, email, etc., and then surround ourselves by the most starkly compelling environment on the planet. Into this potboiler environment we add a transformational leadership program focused on global issues, including climate change and gender inequality.

Three things emerged for all individuals – a sense of self matters deeply; the value of we over I; and recognition that courage is the currency for challenging the status quo and advancing the leadership of women in all domains.

Some people thought (as they predicted in the 60s, when Sylvia Earle led an all-female team underwater on the Tektite project) that there would be clashes and nastiness. But there weren’t. As with Sylvia’s team (who is a part of the filmed faculty, together with Jane Goodall), the dynamic was anything but. As we progressed, a profound freedom emerged, a loving commitment to doing the right thing, and ultimately an overwhelming focus on solutions.

And to the last question – yes! We will take 100 in 2020.

Homeward Bound released an emotional promo video earlier this year - Mother Nature Needs Her Daughters. Can you explain the concept behind this video and what you mean by the title?

We do not treat this planet as a loved mother. A mother is generous, loving, self-sacrificing, and abundant. She holds us in her arms and is life affirming. At least that is what I think of when I think of my mother, or of the sort of mother I think we would all wish for. She is fierce, able to defend, tough, clever, resilient, decisive, swift, and agile. She is playful, vulnerable, and ultimately worth the best of us in return.

However we treat ‘Mother Earth’ as if she were ours to train or contain, to use and abuse wilfully to our own end, like incredibly spoilt children. We are taking and taking with only a marginal understanding of the cost.

We are living through the sixth major mass extinction of species, the last of which was 375 million years ago when the planet was the temperature that scientists are anxiously predicting we will achieve by 2100.

I am very sure that as a leader, as a woman and as a mother, I want now to take every conceivable action to mitigate the cost, and to encourage women to take part in this story – Mother Earth needs her daughters. Collaborative, inclusive, legacy-minded, trusted with assets, money and people.

Ultimately, we will protect our future in partnership with men. But right now, we need women’s voices visibly shaping our world. I think we are brave makers, rather than change makers. We are able to take responsibility for the ‘as is’ of our planet, accepting that leadership in any domain includes this.

This takes a lot of courage (Coeur + rage – rage of the heart).

What role do women scientists have in solving the problems that our environment faces?

Science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine have touched every part of where we are now, and will be central in addressing our most pressing challenges and our grandest opportunities going forward. Women generally, and perhaps women in science in particular, should be front and central in that emerging story – not because they are clever (which they are) but because they have the ability to balance the voracious appetite for more, and better and bigger and brighter with the wisdom to discern at what cost and to what purpose.

When did you first feel like a leader?

I’m not sure what a leader is any more. What it was, what I was, and what I have become in the last three years, varies somewhat.

I probably felt like a traditional leader when I was 7, when I fought for the grade 5s to protect their handstand wall from the grade 7s. A teacher predicted I would be either a criminal or a leader. Perhaps it was Year 12, when I became evangelical about my school house knitting coloured squares for the disadvantaged, or when I helped with a sit in at university protesting exams, or when I became an editor, or when I had my first official leadership role in retail, or when I lost everything I owned and discovered I wasn’t going to die. Maybe it was the first time I helped leaders understand there is nothing to fear in feedback, or when I built a program to help people with a record of offence get a job so they wouldn’t repeat offend (because I was fed up with being robbed in retailing). Maybe it was when I learnt to recognise that success and failure are two sides of the same coin and there is nothing to fear except fear itself. Or maybe it was when I accepted that the paradigm has shifted on the topic. All leaders are followers at times and vice versa and the world we are emerging into needs this to be real.

Homeward Bound has been a great leadership teacher to all concerned. We can’t have a shared ‘should be’, if we don’t know ourselves or what it is like to be on the other side of our faces. Leadership responsibility has to include a global perspective. If not, we will pass a horrible future to our grandchildren. And ultimately, men and women have to do this together, but for the time being, it’s worth giving women some zoom juice.

It’s not an easy task we have set ourselves, but we will give it our best shot because the alternative is not an alternative at all.


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In the Lead: Fabian Dattner
In the Lead: Fabian Dattner
International Women's Forum