IWD2018: leadership, leaning poppies and the Drake Passage

To celebrate International Women’s Day, all week bluenotes will be guest edited by respected journalist and author Catherine Fox. We’ll be publishing content on women, their experience in the workplace and the future of equality. We hope you enjoy it.

The messages we give each other and ourselves can be conflicted at best. The messages we hear about managing our careers can be downright confusing. 

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The path to achievement in any field - for women especially - can be rocky. Sometimes it isn’t clear what the right thing to do is. When we do seek advice it is often offered by well-meaning, highly successful women with different backgrounds to us. 

"Perhaps having to negotiate around [tall poppy] syndrome gives us skills we do not yet recognise.”

I write this from a ship in the Drake Passage on my way to Antarctica as part of a cohort of 77 women of science, all participating in the Homeward Bound leadership project.

I have met many women on this trip; leaders of all shapes and sizes. One thing allows us to exist collaboratively on a small boat: we share a commitment to achieving a common purpose through this grand adventure. Without the collective commitment, such an endeavor would be highly risky.

It’s true for any workplace. A study from Deloitte suggests almost 73 per cent of employees who say their workplace is ‘purpose driven’ are considered highly engaged. Engagement at companies without a purpose falls to less than a quarter - 23 per cent.

The dilemma of navigating the complex social settings of the workplace is a source of confusion around the globe. But it’s a particular problem in Australia, in the land of the ‘tall poppy’.

What if you are meant to be bright and upstanding and a light for others to follow? How do you do this and avoid the tall poppy chop?


Tall poppy syndrome is a social phenomenon well known to Australians. We like our leaders and our like heroes to be self-deprecating and humble - but we also like to have the right to chop them off at the knees if we think they have become too big headed. No one must look like they think well of themselves.

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Pic: Dr Sophie Adams

The deep-seeded cultural curiosity is older than the Federation; according to the Oxford Dictionary, it first appears in written form in Australian in 1871.

Some Australian heroes are larger than life and some evade the censor through sheer self belief. Unfortunately these people seem to be mostly men and sporting heroes - being academic and female appears to invalidate your free pass.

Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In has sold millions of copies in Australia. The book exhorts us to lean in to workplace opportunity, to not let precious opportunities go and to believe you are capable first and then allow yourself the space for this to develop. 

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Pic: Dr Sophie Adams

Sandberg’s advice is excellent but I’m not sure this straightforward approach would always work in the Australian context. Can you imagine standing tall and telling others you could do something at the edge of your capacity? It would be a straightforward invitation for snide remarks, avoidance and sabotage.

As a psychiatrist in public and primary mental health I would never enact this advice publically. I would of course privately advocate for opportunities.

I lean in by working hard and by engaging with others. I use relationship building to identify opportunities and seek collaboration to achieve them. I am mindful I do not work alone.


Much of Sandberg’s advice resonates but I feel it needs tweaking for the Australian context.

Being a tall poppy is too risky. We are just not as straightforward and admiring of success as Americans are. We expect a bit more subtly from our leaders. We need a reason to work with them. Shouting from the rooftops will just get you a hoarse voice and a ton of ill will.

Being a woman amplifies these challenges. Being any other minority group doubles the challenge. Being a women of a non-white background triples it.

Yet we know the most successful endeavors use the knowledge of all to seek solutions. We know the human race works most effectively communally; that good ideas come from diverse thinking; that the least extroverted person may hold the knowledge key to solving our largest problems. 

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Pic: Dr Sophie Adams

The solutions which will change the world are likely to combine the thoughts of many coming together in unique ways. We know leaders who work alone risk losing their capacity at every step if they push their followers too far. Perhaps practice at having to collaborate can actually be an asset in this light?

Perhaps our tall poppy syndrome is advantageous. Perhaps the additional hurdles to female academics, clinicians and business women teach them something of value. 

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Pic: Dr Sophie Adams

It teaches us to collaborate, to seek input from others, to canvas ideas and feelings. It makes us better leaders.

Perhaps having to negotiate around this syndrome gives us skills we do not yet recognise. If you can find an inner voice you can hold to, a middle path and a more affiliative style which begets trust, perhaps these attributes allow a more sophisticated form of leaning in.

Perhaps with some subtlety the tall poppy can stand tall and be supported by those alongside them - without needing to lose its head.

Dr Sophie Adams is Clinical Director at Orygen, the National Centre for Excellence in Youth Mental Health and a Homeward Bound 2018 participant, currently on her way to Antarctica with 77 other international female science leaders.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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