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One gutsy chick worth checking out

Last night I was presenting to a group of CPAs on the business case for taking women to the top in business.  As is often the case, someone asked me to describe the common success factors among women leaders I’ve interviewed in the Take the Lead series.

While there are many traits in common between successful leaders in general, such as persistence, relationships and strategic career management, the point I’d like to focus on today is courage.

Courage is a concept we are all familiar with, but I reckon it’s been somewhat watered down over time.  For example I recently heard the appointment of a woman to a senior leadership position described as a “courageous move”.  Why?  If that person has the skills and competencies to do the role, is it really a risk at all?  And then there’s women who face off against the blokes in a boardroom – a la Catherine Walter on the NAB board a few years back – is that courage or career suicide?  Probably a bit of both, although it was unlikely the outcome of this maneuver would cause Walters any physical harm.

But last week, courtesy of Westpac Women’s Markets and Sydney Writers Week, I had the experience of hearing first hand the story of one of the most amazing women I’ve ever met.  Loretta Napoleoni is the author ofRogue Economics and Terror Inc.: Tracing the Money behind Global Terrorism.

Long before 9/11, Napoleoni was the first person ever invited to interview members of the Red Brigade from their prison cells in Italy, and to tell their story in terms of the complex and lucrative operations of a terrorist organisation. She’s since been asked to meet with members of other terrorist groups like the IRA and Al Quaeda, gaining access to information never previously available about the scale and complexity of terrorist organisations.  Not bad for someone who trained as an economist and was working on a bond desk in London at the time.  While there was little interest in Terror Inc at the time that it was written (in the late 1990s), her phone “rang off the hook” the day after 9/11 as the world began coming to terms with the force that is global terrorism.

My head was spinning listening to Napoleoni’s presentation.  Picture a petite woman, articulate, financially astute, describing the path to her current expertise.  Here’s a woman who took risks, acted on a hunch, and foresaw an entire industry that has evolved around anti-money laundering practices and anti-terrorism policies.  When I asked her after the presentation if she’d take these risks again, and whether she considered herself courageous, she responded “well it didn’t seem that risky at the time”.

But the reality is, Napoleoni is a seriously gutsy chick.  I told her that’s how we’d describe her in Australian lingo and she was thoroughly impressed and “couldn’t wait to tell her husband back home”! She’s bold and brazen and thinks there’s nothing special about what she does compared to anyone else’s day job.  Except that not many people would want to do what she does.  I know I wouldn’t – which is why I’ll never by the global expert on AML and anti terrorism!

Maybe that’s what Virgil (Roman epic poet, 70BC-19BC) meant when he said ‘fortune favors the brave’.

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