How my dream of an all-female Antarctic voyage manifested with courage

How my dream of an all-female Antarctic voyage manifested with courage

Fabian Dattner
At 65, Fabian Dattner is the CEO of Homeward Bound and currently leading the largest all-female voyage to Antarctica in what she describes as the “defining dream of my life”. She shares how difficult it is to leave home for such a trip (now her fourth to the frozen continent) and some lessons she’s learnt about courage. 

My husband, best friend, wisest Counsellor, the person who holds my hand when I feel unsure, who’s body I nestle up to each night to sleep, is, indeed asleep. I am not. I am watching him.

He is a beautiful man, in all ways. Life without him is largely unimaginable. For the fourth time, in as many years, I am about to leave him. Why?

I am leaving my other half to go to the southern-most part of our planet, the frozen continent, with 100 women leaders with a STEMM background, from some 38 countries and almost as many sciences. Homeward Bound is a global initiative to elevate the visibility of women leading for the greater good. It is launched by a 12 month leadership program (most of it in a virtual space) that culminates in an expedition to Antarctica for close to three weeks. It is led and delivered by an extraordinary collaboration of leaders in their fields (including alumni). In this time we cement deep personal insight, personal strategy, purpose and values, the art of visible leadership with a focus on the skills required. We share the contexts in which women work and we bond to become an unshakeable collaboration for the greater good.

It is a powerful motivator to leave those you love but it is never easy.

My heart feels like it’s constricting. I slip out of bed and pad quietly out of our room. I go downstairs to make a chamomile tea. It’s 2am. I turn on a soft light, and our three Burmese cats, curled up in their bed on the top of the AGA (it’s a cold night), blink yellow eyes at me. I stroke their heads. They go back to sleep. Our dogs wag their tails. Two go back to sleep and our old Labrador gets up and comes and puts his head on my lap. I put my face to his head and let myself be me, just me, with his loving calming presence. He stays perfectly still and ever so gently pressed against me.

It is in this moment that I think about the effort it takes to be the leader I need to be for Homeward Bound, for these women. I have been a CEO for most of my life, in various organisations, I know what it means to lead people. I am a leadership expert, I know how the narrative of leadership, as a practice, has evolved over the last 50 – 70 years. I know that authenticity, vulnerability, courage, strategic clarity, values, purpose, disclosure, feedback, self awareness, ability to coach and a genuine liking of people matter today more than ever.

I know my gifts and I also know my flaws. Three years of feedback from over 250 scientists has cemented this for me. I am 65. This was not in my plan. It now shapes the entirety of my life.

I have also only just come to the realisation that, despite my skill, expertise or seniority, my life is framed by dreams. I was three when I dreamt of someone outside our house, with a wheel barrow, slowly and relentlessly treading in the dark towards our front door. I was paralysed with fear, but not for myself, but rather for my family. I had to warn them, but I was too small.

I was seven when I dreamt of a fire, consuming our home and I was paralysed with fear, but again, not for myself, but rather for the people who mattered to me. I was 26 when I dreamt pure evil was coming into a room and I was the singular target. I woke utterly terrified. How could I possibly manifest something in my sleep that I had no life experience of? I found a place to store this dream by saying to myself that if I can manifest evil, I can manifest deep love and great good for the world in which I live.

I have not always been my best self and I know it. But every day, in all that I do, it is my intention.

Dreaming Homeward Bound into life is, I suspect, the defining dream of life. In October 2015, in the dark of night, I dreamt of the ship, the women, the purpose of Homeward Bound, it’s name and the making of a film that will interrogate the narrative of leadership in our world today. All these things capture the skills I have built and the concerns that I carry. They were all part of a clear, specific, unambiguous, detailed dream. With an extraordinary bunch of women, this dream has manifested in this last four years.

Right now, however, it is the trade off that has my heart caught up. I start to cry. My Labrador pushes a little more firmly, his tail wagging softly, he looks at me. One of our cats gets up, the smallest and youngest, slim and brown. She pads silently to me and squeezes between the dog and me. She starts purring loudly. I know they are telling me in their own way that I belong and I am loved and I am enough.

In my bones, I know this will carry with me.

I go back to bed and my husband rolls over and wraps me in his arms.

This is how I go to sleep. When I wake, I will head to the airport to start this epic last leg of the fourth cohort of Homeward Bound, the largest group of women ever taken to Antartica.

And this I know. Most of the women from around the world will be doing the same order of goodbyes, their own version, and waking with their own courage wrapped up, committed to leading in our world, together for the greater good.

Lessons to courageous women committed to the greater good

  1. Believe in your heart and mind what you are doing is worth the effort it will take
  2. Recognise your leadership is not in parts, it is in the whole, and sometimes one part will take a great amount from other
  3. It is a good thing if you are conscious of the trade offs, often we aren’t
  4. Remind yourself, no matter how big the opportunity, it is the smallest of things that gives you greatest comfort
  5. Never be alone women are stronger together

And so #takeyourplace

Faby’s LinkedIn:

Homeward Bound website:

Dattner Group:

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