Category Archives: Leadership

A hollowed heart

I sat across from a 15 year old Syrian refugee who said to me, ‘I know we are young in age, but in reality we are women in our forties”.  And through the lens of my forty year old eyes I knew she was right.  She has experienced a level of violence I hope never to understand, felt the acute loss of family members, breathed the worry and fear for missing family members.   Each day when she wakes she knows the struggle of finding work in the hope of having enough food to support what is left of her family.  In her reality she is a mature responsible adult whose sole purpose is to ensure the survival of her family.

So what am I?

Several years ago when I aspired to this role and started this blog I was passionate, dedicated and full of optimism of what being an emergency humanitarian communicator would be. I barely recognise the younger woman who wrote these words:

It is about that one child whose story and image can make a desensitised world take notice.  It is about that one mother who survives with hope for her children’s future that makes another mother in another country want to act.  It’s about letting those who are suffering know that people around the world do care and that they will help in any way they can”.  How to become an emergency communicator, June 2012

Now, after countless interviews with so many children living in conflict I feel like I am letting those living in constant suffering down.  In the current world, with so many political and social challenges that too frequently turn to hateful and belittling discourse how do I keep telling the stories that will make people want to love and care for their neighbours and bring hope to the lives of children?

Working in humanitarian communications often makes me feel like I am a conduit or translator without influence.  I am just the person who sits and talks with children affected by conflict, asking them to articulate their challenges and needs, encouraging them to provide feedback on what current humanitarian interventions are working and what needs to be improved.  I then spend hours starting at my laptop and painstakingly turn their raw emotions, their pain and their profound sadness at a society that, at best they feel has abandoned them and at worst, betrayed them, into something some stranger will read.  Something that will evoke a stirring in the heart or at least provide a rational argument to the brain of a decision maker who has it within their power to do something.  I often feel as though my attempts to convince governments, donors and publics to take some form of action is the coldest thing I do.

I remain passionate and dedicated to these children, but I have lost the battle to remain optimistic. I am pragmatic; realistic.  I know what my words can and can not achieve. I am a heart that has hollowed with each conversion of a child’s tears into clinically worded bullet-points aimed at faceless targets.



Filed under Emergency Communications, In the field, Leadership

Kindness is a choice

We all have choices to make.  In my personal life I usually run a mile from choices because I am never confident in my ability to pay the costs involved.  Professionally I make a million choices a day.  Sometimes I have been happy with, even proud of my choices, other times not so much. Sometimes I make a choice which logic and intelligence determine to be right but I can’t help feeling sick as I make it.

Humanitarian work is full of these kinds of choice. Choices on who to help, when to help, and how to help. Choices of who to work with and who not to work with.  Choices about what kind of humanitarian you want to be.  Do you want to be one who strictly adheres to humanitarian principles of impartiality, neutrality and independence?   Do you want to be a humanitarian who does what ever it takes to get the job done?

I’m not even a tried and tested humanitarian, I haven’t seen the devastation of a rapid onset natural disaster or been in the aftermath of civil unrest.  I am a student and a trainee and as such I feel unprepared for the barrage of choices that I am facing in my newly chosen career.  I am confronted by the mirror that humanitarian work holds up in front of you.

One choice that I know I have to remake and recommit to each moment is the choice to be kind.

It’s such a simple, rather old fashion notion and one that is easily forgotten in times of pressure and stress.  Over the past few weeks I’ve tried to bring some reSILLYence to my team and I have noticed that more than the laughs and jokes, it’s been those small acts of kindness that have really made the difference.  It got me thinking, the darkest moments I have experienced and witnessed in my life always featured an act of random kindness.

When I lived in Korea I got tuberculosis.  I barely remember the fever, the pain or the coughing.  I do, and always will, remember the kindness I was shown by my boss, colleagues, friends and even the local bar tender throughout my 12-month recovery.

My first trip with work took me to the slums of India.  We were filming the residents of Chennai as they woke from their spots on the ground, packed up their meagre belongings and disappeared into the city’s streets.  After a few days of talking with a young lady she presented me with a thread of white flowers.  I had seen these flowers being worn in women’s hair and knew this was her income source.  I didn’t know if I should accept, offer to pay or what.  Not having a hair clip of my own she took out hers and clipped the flowers to my hair, thanking me for listening to her story.

In a training scenario where I was covered in fake blood and vomit pretending to die a stranger sat next to me, held my hand and sung me a lullaby.

Frustration at feeling useless, anger and annoyance at not being listened to, and defeat by passive aggression make it easy to overlook kindness in others.  Worse still, they provide a twisted self-justification for forgetting to be kind yourself.

I’m not proud of some of my behaviour over the past few months.  I know that in some instances I have not been kind.  For all our right and wrong undertakings, for all our achievements and stumbles it’s the kindness that we show that will be remembered.    Kindness is a choice and I am choosing right now to be kind.   Cos in the end that is all that matters.



Filed under Leadership

reSILLYence – bringing the silly back

I had a friend who saw things differently.  She was quirky, freakishly insightful and intelligent.  She never let what other thought of her and her ideas deter her from saying what she needed to say.  I admired her for it.  I was also constantly scared for her and the loneliness that is brought about by understanding things long before others do.

She is on the other side of the world now, still going in her own unique brilliance.  I don’t talk to her much but I desperately want to reach out to her and ask how she does it.  How does she always bounce back?

I remember all the crazy times we had together and how we laughed.  Not just laughed, full-blown giggle, chuckle, snorting I’m gonna pee my pants laughed.  And I realised that’s how she does it, she laughs and more importantly she makes others around her laugh.

She has reSILLYence.

I’m still weaving my way through interviews. training and evaluations on my pathway to being an emergency communicator.  One of the key assessments is personal resilience.  I dread this question because I’m secretly scared that I am weak, sensitive and vulnerable.  But as the dictionary reminded me, resilience isn’t about what gets you down it is about how you bounce back.

This week as office politics, preparation for exams, uncertainty in where my career is going, failing to make $50 magically turn into $100, uncomfortable medical procedures and finally accepting that eating chocolate is not going to help me lose weight got me a little overwhelmed I made a decision.

I’m bringing the SILLY back.

First step – living the Pina Colada song

Really liking Pina Coladas

and getting caught in the rain

Second step…getting a little punch drunk with Ntegrity (yes this is a shameless pun/plug for my awesome friend and boxing partner’s aptly named business)

Yep I have flames on my gloves.

Third step…jump for joy when ever and where ever you can

Jump for Joy

Forth step…YOU

Help bring the SILLY back and gives us all a little boost in our reSILLYence.  Tell us what silly little things you do in your day to laugh and bring a smile to the faces around you.



Filed under Leadership, Preparation, Uncategorized

I’d rather pick my nose than worry about picking my battles

Champagne, disappointment, and dilemmas: I’m starting to realise my life unfolds like a trilogy.  Like most trilogies, with the exception of Empire Strikes Back, the middle one is usually disappointing.  I don’t like disappointment; it seems a rather stupid emotion with no productive outcome insight.

Every time I am disappointed I get the inevitable lecture about picking my battles.  I am a humanitarian not a military strategist.  I think every battle I fight is worth fighting, I wouldn’t be fighting it if I didn’t it.  Losing a battle, no matter how painful it can be, doesn’t in any way mean it wasn’t worth the effort.  People are worth effort.  And even in defeat, knowing that someone stood beside you in the fight is often enough to make a difference.

When facing defeat I turn to a few select people for guidance.  I like to call them my sanity pillars.  These are people whose intelligence, integrity and humour help bring me back to what it is all about.  One of my sanity pillars is moving to Ethiopia in a couple of weeks.  After his farewell filled with cocktails and travel stories I started thinking about my visit to Ethiopia earlier this year.  I don’t even have to read over my notes to remember the people I met and the stories I heard.  I see their faces and hear their voices each night before I go to sleep.

When I think of fighting battles I think often of these people, specifically the women I met.  This trip was investigating and gathering stories about food insecurity and the impact this has on communities.  Many people in the north of Ethiopia face food insecurity.  The land is dry and rocky, the heat extreme and the water scarce.

Many people leave their villages in search of food and a better life for their families.

Many people see no alternative but to leave the area and hope the streets of Addis Ababa will be more generous.  They rarely are.  Too many end up begging on the streets, scourging for food scraps, in abusive labour or worse.  The women I spoke with had lived on these streets and eventually returned to their villages.  They weren’t proud of their deeds in Addis but they were defiant in their fight for their family’s survival.  One woman stared at me with a set jaw and steely glance and said the abuse she suffered in Addis, the defeat and hopelessness she felt, makes her fight now for all children.  She is now a volunteer community worker in her village, training, educating and protecting child’s rights.

My weekly battles aren’t always so meaningful.  This week I won the battle with a stubborn Champagne cork.  I lost the battle of self-control and ordered a pizza.  I won the fight against my credit card debt.  I lost the fight against keeping my mouth shut.  This week though someone who thought no one cared thanked me, I felt the appreciation of another who didn’t think they could face something on their own and I received the warmth of a hug from someone who saw it all unfold.

Great things, small or big, can come out of defeats.  If we pick our battles too carefully, if we pick only those we think we will win, what are we at risk of losing?


Filed under In the field, Leadership

Everything I learnt about managing people I learnt in kindergarten

I thought managing people would get easier as I got older and theoretically wiser.  Instead I find myself questioning every decision I make, replaying every conversation I have in my head and at the end of the day wondering if clinging to ideals like integrity are just too old fashioned for the modern business world.

My first kinder class, South Korea 2005

I have been a manger for over ten years and have done numerous leadership and management training courses. I have a suite of models and tools that tell me how to give instructions, coaching, feedback, set expectations, and enhance performance.  After a week of ups and downs and round abouts what I realise is that everything I draw upon to be the best manager I can be for my team I learnt teaching kindergarten.

For two years I taught English to a class of four-year-old South Koreans.  They were enthusiastic, fun, and adorable.  They were also noisy, sneaky and loved running with scissors.  I couldn’t understand them and they couldn’t understand me.  Somehow I had to teach them basic English, stop them falling off their chairs and impart a love of learning.  As a rather large and white stranger I had to earn their trust.  I also had to wear jeans to stop them trying to hide under my skirts.

An unusually successful day of using scissors

I had to learn to be very clear in my instructions and lead by example.  I had to protect and keep them safe from harm but in a way that didn’t dampen their sense of fun and curiosity.  I had to teach them that putting your hand in for the Hokey Pokey was not the same as putting your finger into the door jam.  I had to remember most of all that they had a very different point of view than I did and that was a good thing.  But the hardest thing was being able to see the consequences some of their actions would bring and having the strength to stand back and let them make a thousand small mistakes so they could learn for themselves.

Now, years later as a manager I am still trying to find that strength.  The strength to let some of the most gifted, talented and passionate people I know working in some of the most demanding conditions make their own way.  Just like with my kinder students most of the time all I really want to do is give my team big hugs and tell them that everything is fine.  But when I think of the best managers that I have had, they never just told me it was fine.  They challenged me, pushed me, encouraged me, overloaded me and when it came down to it they always had my back.

Yep, he is getting ready to jump off his desk!

And like my kinder students knew I would always be there to catch them when they jumped off their desks, I want to manage in a way that my team always knows I will be there for them too.

What about you?  What do you think makes a good manager?


Filed under Leadership