'Our planet is in strife & we must act. Women leading is part of the solution': Fabian Dattner

‘Our planet is in strife & we must act. Women leading is part of the solution’: Fabian Dattner

Women matter greatly in the future of leadership, says Fabian Dattner. The solutions to some of our most difficult challenges are in the voice of the people — a leader’s job is to synthesis what they hear and guide action. 

After decades of working in leadership development, including starting an all female Antarctic voyage and interviewing thousands of people, Fabian speaks shares her story and her views on leadership with Jessie Tu. 

Fabian Dattner after decades of working in leadership development. She speaks to Jessie Tu, outlining why she started an all female Antarctic voyage, what she learned interviewing thousands of people over six years and her

When Fabian Dattner was 10-years old, a schoolteacher told the precocious and courageous girl that she would grow up to become either a very effective criminal or a social justice leader.

Fifty years later, Fabian is a self-described futurist and social entrepreneur. Thankfully, she has channelled her innate code for calling out injustices to become a champion of women’s leadership and responsible governance. She has been working in leadership development for thirty years and is now an expert in developing leadership capabilities and diagnostics that inform changing behaviour.

The founder and CEO of the globally praised women-focused leadership initiative Homeward Bound and Dattner Group spoke to me over the phone recently, leaving me with one clear line that sums up her experience and determination to see leadership get better: “I can see the pathway for the future for us as though it were a book written in my hand. Women matter greatly.”

Dattner has been leading the conversation around leadership and social change since the late 1980s, advocating for women’s participation and re-writing the narrative of meaningful leadership. She considers herself a ‘lay scientist’ and told me she and her husband are voracious consumers of scientific literature.

“We read about what’s happening to the world, and extensively around the narratives of the sciences.

“The more we read the more alarmed we were and the more we wondered, why aren’t people listening to the sciences?”

She is an enabler. A collaborator. A natural storyteller. Born to parents Stephen Dattner, a former MI5 agent, and Kay Dattner, an artist.

Her father, a prodigious reader, introduced his daughter to Russian literature, and instilled a deep love for words and stories from a young age. “I read prolifically from a very early age. The power of stories was ingrained became a part of my DNA. My father had a very inquisitive mind,” – a mind which Fabian has evidently inherited.

But Fabian also shares the challenges of working with her father’s business, a company with values she didn’t fundamentally agree with. She says the experience — along with the thousands of leaders she later interviewed — taught her the meaning of staying true to your purpose and values.

In 2020, Fabian is on a mission to “rebuild trust in leadership.”

She notes that the vast majority of the world’s population is fearful about the future of work, despite the fact the global economy, along with employment rates, has been strong (notwithstanding the immediate impact of the Coronavirus).

“People are very frightened,” she says.

“We see two forces at work, and they are diametrically opposed. One is the Trump factor. His behaviour as a leader has affected people’s trust in the credibility of leaders and the truthfulness of the media. Diametrically opposite to this, we have someone like Greta Thunberg, who has opened up the eyes of the world to how critical our choices are now for managing the future of this planet.”

After the closure of the Dattner group in early 1990, which Fabian considers “one of the great lessons in my life, and ironically one of the great success stories”, she recounted her journey of this period in “Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained” (Penguin, 1990) – the first of several books on leadership she would pen throughout the years.

Her unique style of leadership has accumulated in a national platform for women in leadership focusing on courage and collaboration at all levels. The Dattner Group now runs a program called Compass, which is a series of module-based workshops that explicitly addresses the imbalance of gender in corporate leadership but through a different lens which routinely women describe as ‘honest’ ‘authentic’ ‘real’ ‘heartfelt’ and ‘relevant’.

“My style is inclusive – I am part of not apart from the collaborative effort”,” she said. “Even when I am speaking, I have the audience involved within the first five minutes. I believe everything is a conversation. I want to help that conversation be richer, more informed, more inspirational and more thoughtful. You have to understand the art of structuring conversations to get this outcome and that’s something I have obsessed over.”

She says that, like everyone else, she wants to feel like her life was worthy and leave a legacy that helps secure the future for all of us.

“I feel an immense duty of care to do everything in my power to help and I will do that until I don’t. Sylvia Earle and Jane Goodall are still activists in their 80s. They are the kind of role models that matter.”

My conversation with the charismatic thought-leader saw us plunge into her history, her goals for Compass, and the future of women’s leadership through the growing acclaim of Homeward Bound — a twelve month leadership initiative culminating in an annual expedition of women  who are STEM leaders to Antarctica.

Below are edited responses from Fabian to some of my questions.

What set you off on your ambitions to change the world in your unique way?

Since I was a young child, I have had a strong sense of social justice. The older I grew, the more aware I became of how that existed in my own family. Even though we were in business, there was always a very strong sense of social justice and fairness and treating people equally.

I parked all my personal values when I joined my father’s business. It was a company whose values I fundamentally didn’t agree with and I learnt that I loved my father more than my own values. In that journey, I learned a huge amount about what it means to stay true to your purpose and your values and how you deal with public failure.

I went out and interviewed thousands of people over six years.

I wanted to learn more about what are people were saying about what they want from leaders – what do they feel they are not getting. I discovered that leaders cannot, do not and never will have the answers – it’s not their job. Their job is an enabler, and as a catalyst.

That lesson gave rise to what is now the Dattner Group. My life is dedicated to helping leaders be better people and that’s what my organisation does. We help organisations to listen to what people are saying, really listen in order to hear the collective wisdom (it’s always there).

I will guarantee 99 times out of 100 that the pathway through whatever challenges you think you’re facing, whatever obstacles are giving you the 3am Wobblies, the solutions are always in the voice of the people.

The job of the leader is to synthesise what they hear and guide action, add your voice for sure, but don’t drown out what people are thinking and feeling.

Fabian Dattner

Tell me about Compass and what it aims to do?

About fifteen years ago, I began to realise that women are insistently and perniciously absent at the leadership table (I was slow to realise this). I thought it was about personal choice. I came to understand this was far from the truth. So, Compass is a program for women focusing on creating the intention and personal will to lead (by intention I mean, it must align with what your purpose is and your values). Then it’s about recognising you matter, that your visibility and voice in leadership are crucial. We are significantly empowered when we do this together. The roadblocks seem smaller when we know we aren’t alone in managing them. Compass is a visionary leadership program, more interested in the ‘why’ for what we do rather than the ‘how’. We help women cultivate the courage to lead.

We have 25-35 people in each cohort so that each person walks out with a minimum of five people they develop a significant bond with, and a strong sense that the whole group have their back when needed.  They all come from very diverse contexts and levels.

In both Homeward Bound and Compass we have fuelled the will to collaborate and the recognition that, no matter your level or context, we are, as women, definitely stronger together.

Why did you choose the slogan “Rebuilding trust in leadership for the greater good” for Compass? 

Every year, the Edelman Trust Barometer does a review of a significant number of countries, measuring people’s trust in the institutions that govern us. The 2020 results present a bleak picture. It’s a tale in two halves. If you look at the patterns, you’ll see that our world is dividing. If you’re better educated, if you’re affluent and if you consume news broadly, you are likely to trust the institutions that govern the planet.  Nobody else does.

83% of the world’s population are actually fearful of the future of their work despite the fact that globally we had (pre the Pandemic) nearly 100% employment and the global economy was looking good. Be that as it may, people were clearly very frightened. I think there are two forces at work, and they are diametrically opposed. One is the Trump factor which needs no explanation. On the other side, we have someone like Greta Thunberg, who has opened the eyes of the world to how critical our choices are now in managing the future of the planet.

‘Leading for the greater good’ is possibly the only choice we have as leaders if our species is to survive the next 100 years. I believe we need women leading in massive numbers. Here are my simplest leadership capabilities, the ones we should measure at every level. We collaborate. We’re inclusive. We have a legacy mindset, and fundamentally we can be trusted with assets and that includes money and people.

How do participants practice accountability within the Compass Program?

My son in the US calls it having an Accountabilibuddy. It’s when I make a commitment, I am beholden to the commitment. In Compass, you make this with others who are on the journey with you. We have a process in the program where you share your journey closely with two other people. What happens is, our boundaries begin to merge. We don’t compete but we ebb and flow and meet as a unit. Women find safety in numbers.

Compass is about finding courageous women who want to be more visible – to themselves, to others and to the world around them. We help create a safe space to do this, no matter your level or skill. That’s why 100% of participants will say the program met or exceeded their expectations and 50% are promoted within six months of doing the program. We want women to get to the place where they feel more wholly themselves and moving forward, knowing they have other women around them supporting them.

What were the seeds for the idea of Homeward Bound?

There was a tipping point.

I noticed when more women were present, the way we talked, they would influence what was talked about, it felt kinder and more inclusive.

But they were not being selected for executive roles. I’ve been a senior leader for more than 30 years and I am now aware of what I didn’t get invited to and what I did get offered as a leader. I saw that my male counterparts who had my skill, ability and profile got more opportunities, more pay, more visibility. I recognised this was true for many women leaders. And I thought that needed to change.

Homeward Bound came to me in a dream; literally it was a dream  following an amazing (and distressing) Compass program under the auspice of the Australian Antarctic Division in Tasmania in October 2015. The night after the program, I had the dream and it brought together my frustration on behalf of brilliant women, my worry about what is happening to our planet, my deep respect for the practice of science and my insight into the practice of leadership – what got us here won’t get us where we need to go to prosper.

Our planet is in strife and we must act. Women leading is part of the solution.

Coronavirus is getting everyone’s attention now and we are responding globally with massive and evident action. No country is unaffected (even though the death rate is sitting currently about 3.4% overall). Perhaps, at worst, it might claim the lives of 6 possibly 10% of the world’s population. That would be awful. No question. But Climate Change will affect everyone.  It is placing our species at threat and certainly the quality of the future for our children. And even if we manage to muster the leadership will and we address this, following hot on it’s tail is massive species extinction as a result of habitat loss, ubiquitous plastic in the environment, deforestation, and water and air degradation.

Our voracious appetite is destroying the environment with a wilfulness that is self-defeating. While all the indicators of human benefit are on the ascent – we are now better educated, we live longer, there’s less warfare, have more food, and have broad access to technology and the information it provides – every primary indicator of the planet is going in the absolute direct opposite.

Jane Goodall says in an interview I filmed with her in 2016 that this only happens because leaders are greedy. I agree. Ultimately, the issue is not climate change. I think we have a crisis in the practice of leadership – that is what Homeward Bound and Compass are about.

homeward bound
Women in STEM on the 2019 Antarctic voyage.


Why do you think Homeward Bound went viral?

We hit the quadrella: the collapsing narrative of leadership and the need for an alternative model, the importance of women in massive numbers leading, a focus on science as it informs what is happening to the planet, and ultimately leading for the greater good which must start with treating the planet as home.

Homeward Bound is a global model of leading collaboratively. It’s been hard to do but we are doing it. We now have 48 nationalities involved and some 36 sciences. The founding faculty are dedicated global experts in their field who share the responsibility without ever flinching.  All of us donate our time to that project. The women involved raise funds that contribute to going to Antarctica, funding our small administrative team and running a global awareness campaign every year for women leading with a STEMM background.

Homeward Bound is well known globally. Our job is to make sure that when women are accepted, they can immediately get attention (from media, institutions and the public). Thousands of articles have been written about Homeward Bound and as many speeches given by the women around the world.

That is our job – to help them become visible, and to show them how to use their visibility to create a platform they can stand on. We show them how to pitch for themselves, how to ask for money. There are hundreds of institutions around the world that contribute. And we ask the women to put some money of their own too. If you believe in yourself, back yourself.

Read more on the Compass leadership program for women here


Stay Smart! Get Savvy!

Get Women’s Agenda in your inbox