Inspired leadership: women who lead by example

When I was younger, I did not see myself as a leader, but I never saw myself as a follower, either. Rather, I marched to the beat of my own drum — as I still do today. Throughout my school years and early adulthood, I resented authority figures – those in a leadership capacity who would tell me what to do, or force their will on me — while at the same time secretly craved their guidance and wisdom.

In recent years, with some reasonable maturity under my, um, coloured hair, I have been studying some of the world’s greatest minds and leaders, and observing leadership around me; not because I was setting out to be a leader, moreso out of curiosity. I wanted to know what is true leadership? What makes a good leader? Is it power and influence? Running a large corporation and many employees? Making decisions that impact scores of people? Or is it something else? We usually think of leaders as those who have risen to the top in the business world and political arena, such as Steve Jobs (whose legacy lives on), President Obama, Marissa Mayer, Ontario’s Premier Wynne, and so forth. But these are not the only kind of leaders out there.

Today, I interview women on my talk show, Extraordinary Women TV, who are doing something interesting with their lives.  They are role models. Having interviewed in-depth more than 200 Canadian women from all walks of life who are making their mark, it has forced me to revisit any previous notion I had of leadership.

For instance, Kym Geddes is the news director and anchor at NewsTalk 1010, who has her finger on the pulse of Toronto — an influential position to be in. She is the first female news director at the station, no doubt a huge accomplishment, but what I think is most interesting about her is the passion she oozes because she loves what she does. It’s like a magnet.

Linda Lundstrom, Canadian icon and fashion designer, had a highly successful design company only to later lose it all when the economy turned-down. Then, through a journey of faith, as she put it, she created a different kind of meaningful and successful life for herself, while at the same time making a difference in Aboriginal communities, which she speaks so passionately about today.

And Hassel Aviles, who founded the Toronto Underground Market (TUM), the first social food market in Canada, which brings many people together. As a young mom, she wanted to do something in her life that did not involve her children, so she faced her fears and launched TUM, something she loves to do – which makes her shine and that is alluring.

These women all have something in common: they are all leaders in their own right. They make their dreams come true. They inspire me. And they have opened my eyes to seeing a different kind of leadership because, as role models, they are leading by example.

Whenever I give my keynote on the topic “unleashing creativity,” I talk about discovering what we truly want to create in our hearts, getting beyond self-doubt – the killer of creativity – finding inspiration, which fuels us, and the courage that gives us the, ahem, balls to make our creative dreams a reality. When we do this, we are following our hearts and dreams. When we follow our dreams, we become an inspiring person. When we become an inspiring person, we inspire others to do the same — it’s catchy!

Because let me ask you this: is there nothing more inspiring than someone who is following their heart and dream?

This is leading with inspiration, through inspiration, for the purpose of inspiration. It is inspired leadership. And it is all around us.

And so, today I challenge you to think about how you view leadership and maybe even redefine it, if necessary.

And if you ever hit a wall with your creativity (a creative crash), experience the doldrums, or need inspiration or a courage boost, I encourage you to check out the women I interview. Get inspired by their stories of courage and transformation, and that will surely get you fired-up and make you take steps toward fulfilling your own dreams. They are truly leading…by example.

INTERVIEW: Shannon Skinner interviews Frances Cairncross, Rector, Exeter College, Oxford University

It is not often one gets the opportunity to interview a woman who runs a 700 year-old institution. That is what Frances Cairncross does as Rector of Exeter College, Oxford University — the first university in the English-speaking world.

Frances Cairncross, an award-winning journalist and author of The Company of the Future and The Death of Distance, has cracked the proverbial glass ceiling with a stellar career in traditionally male-dominated fields. Prior to her role at Exeter College, she was the Management Editor at The Economist. Prior to that, she was at The Guardian, The Times, The Banker and The Observer. She has chaired the Economic and Social Research Council and was President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, a Senior Fellow at the School of Public Policy, UCLA and an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (RSA).

Shannon Skinner interviews Frances Cairncross, Rector, Exeter College, Oxford University

photo credit: Frances Cairncross, Rector, Exeter College, Oxford University

Frances was once a student at Oxford (St. Anne’s College, where she read Modern History) and holds an MA in Economics from Brown University, Rhode Island. She also holds honorary degrees from Trinity College Dublin and many other universities. She is a non-executive director of Stramongate Ltd, and a regular presenter of BBC Radio Four’s Analysis programme. She even once held the honorary post of High Sheriff of Greater London.

Now that’s achievement.

I recently met Frances in New York at a reception for Exeter College alumni, which was held during the annual North American Oxford University alumni reunion. I had the privilege of attending Exeter College at Oxford in 2007, when I took the Creative Writing summer programme. It was one of the most inspiring times creatively for me; to be surrounded by the intellectual energy of some of the greatest minds on Earth who have – past or present — studied or lectured there.

When I discovered that Frances was going to be in New York for the Oxford reunion, I thought it would be inspiring to interview her. After all, I wanted to know what it takes — as a woman — to successfully run a 700 year-old institution. And so, I traveled from Toronto to New York to meet this highly accomplished woman who I felt held some wisdom that I could tap into and learn from.

Find out what insights Frances Cairncross provides in this interview below. Enjoy!

SS: What or who inspired you to become a journalist and author?

FC: I had finished university, wasn’t sure what I wanted to do for a career, and thought that journalism would allow me time to look around. I looked around for over 30 years!

Why is it so important for women to get a higher education?

Because it gives them self-confidence and a sense of self-worth. It also (on average) makes them happier, more employable and significantly raises their life-time earnings, compared to not having higher education.

What has been your greatest challenge to-date as a career woman?

To spend enough time with good friends and older family members.

Exeter College will soon celebrate its 700 year anniversary – what is it like as a woman, in particular, to run an institution that is so old and rich in history?

It’s a huge privilege. I look at the portraits of my male predecessors, which line the walls of our 1618 dining hall, and wonder what they would think if they knew.

Where do you find your greatest support to keep going?

From my husband, the journalist Hamish McRae, and from my two wonderful daughters.

Why should students consider attending Exeter College?

Because we will give them more personal attention, more intellectual stimulation and more interest than any other academic experience in the world.

What does “success” mean to you – how do you define it?

Success means doing what needs to be done without having to tread on too many toes or ruffle feathers unnecessarily.

How do you handle the pressures of your job?

By talking to my family, doing as much exercise as I can and finding opportunities to laugh.

Self-esteem, or lack of it, is an issue that affects many young women. What did you do to believe in yourself so that you could get beyond any self-doubts and reach the career heights that you have?

I was lucky enough to have loving parents – and especially a father who believed in the advancement of women. My parents argued plenty, but stayed together and enjoyed each other’s company more as the years went by.

One of the difficulties career women seem to experience is juggling “it all.” How do you balance work-personal life? Is it even possible to have balance and still achieve career success?

While your children are growing up, you can have two out of three of the following: work, family, friends. You can’t have all three.

Is there anything you haven’t yet done in your life – business and/or personal – that you wish to do?

Be a grandmother. But don’t tell my daughters in case they feel pressured.

Are you working on any new books or other projects that you would like people to know about?

I am working on a book about the College’s first 700 years, called Portrait of a College. We are taking advance orders now, so that’s quite a deadline!

Do you have hobbies?

I love swimming out of doors, all year round.

If you had one message to young women, what is it?

Remember that finding the right husband and raising a family ultimately may matter more to you than having a good job.

What is your top success tip?

When in doubt, ask yourself, “What would a man do?” – and then do it, but with more grace.


Shannon Skinner is the author of The Whispering Heart: Your Inner Guide to Creativity and host of Extraordinary Women TV with Shannon Skinner. She attended Exeter College at the University of Oxford (creative writing programme) in the summer of 2007.

copyright © Shannon Skinner 2012



The rise of the woman orator

As I prepare myself for the speaking world, my speaker coach yesterday asked me a simple question: who do you consider the greatest orators?

I rattled off a number of them, such as the obvious J.F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King — the usual suspects — and a number of others. Then I realized my list comprised entirely of men.

So, I had to do more digging.

Margaret Thatcher popped into my mind — and then Hilary Clinton, who gives rousing speeches.

And then I struggled to find more. But why were they not coming to mind?

There are plenty of examples of women who have given famous speeches. There are also loads of examples of wonderful, competent and inspiring women speakers all over the world. I have worked with or interviewed some of them. But what about women who have powerfully moved a nation through their charisma and spoken word?

Not many. Certainly not as orators.

For instance, Oprah has had an undeniable enormous impact around the world through her journalism and interviewing skills, but I would not consider her an orator.

Queen Elizabeth II is a highly skilled speech reader, but she does not necessarily inspire.

Princess Diana gave powerful speeches in her quest to rid the world of landmines, but I don’t think she was of the orator caliber either. But if you read one of her speeches on the subject, the passion is undeniable.

For centuries, until more recently, women have been silenced and kept in the background, while the world valued male attributes, power and rhetoric. In many nations, boys were the ones who received education, while girls played domestic roles. So there was not much opportunity for women to speak, let alone master the art.

However, we are not silenced and hidden any longer. At least, not in developed nations.

So who are some of the other women who have powerfully used the “word” to move the masses?

One of the most powerful speeches on record given by a woman, in my opinion, was England’s most famous flaming red-head, Queen Elizabeth I, on the Spanish Armada. It was her “battle cry.” She had it in her heart to motivate her troops as they faced war. The genuine emotion of this speech is palpable:

My loving people, we have been persuaded by some, that are careful of our safety, to take heed how we commit ourselves to armed multitudes, for fear of treachery; but I assure you, I do not desire to live to distrust my faithful and loving people. Let tyrants fear; I have always so behaved myself that, under God, I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and good will of my subjects. And therefore I am come amongst you at this time, not as for my recreation or sport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live or die amongst you all; to lay down, for my God, and for my kingdom, and for my people, my honor and my blood, even the dust. I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart of a king, and of a king of England, too; and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realms: to which, rather than any dishonor should grow by me, I myself will take up arms; I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field. I know already, by your forwardness, that you have deserved rewards and crowns; and we do assure you, on the word of a prince, they shall be duly paid you. In the mean my lieutenant general shall be in my stead, than whom never prince commanded a more noble and worthy subject; not doubting by your obedience to my general, by your concord in the camp, and by your valor in the field, we shall shortly have a famous victory over the enemies of my God, of my kingdom, and of my people.

Queen Elizabeth I – 1588

There is much to learn from this speech. The key to being a great orator is tucked in between words, sentences and phrases. I am not aware if the Queen Elizabeth I actually wrote this speech herself or if it was written for her, but my sense is she had a hand in it.

Granted when you rule a nation, you must master the craft of the spoken word that mobilizes. More women then ever are ruling nations, like Argentina. So perhaps we will see a rise of the “great woman orator.”

In my research, I stumbled upon this terrific blog, The Eloquent Woman, that is a great resource for women speakers and famous women speeches. If you are a woman speaker, check it out.

I personally feel it is time for the rise of the great woman orator. It is time for a woman to move the masses with her charisma and the power of the spoken word. We need more women orators.

Is that you?

Thank you, Judy Suke, for asking me the important question in the first place, which has put me on a new quest.

To my readers: Who do you think are the greatest women orators, past or present?


© Shannon Skinner 2012


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