Simone George is a human rights lawyer and advocate, consultant commercial litigator and TED2018 Speaker. Everything Simone does is based on her belief in fairness. As a human rights lawyer, she represents women who are experiencing abuse and is presently researching why those in our systems don’t adequately serve justice. She co-authored the report “The Lawlessness of the Home” with an Irish NGO, finding that we are all responsible for women and children’s right to bodily integrity and to liberty. She also co-created a summit in 2016 to cultivate the leadership required to arm us for this responsibility, gathering the world’s foremost thinkers and activists together in Dublin. This work led to significant amendments to legislation and will contribute to a new landscape of social and political justice in Ireland.
In 2010, Simone’s fiancé – blind adventure athlete Mark Pollock – broke his back, and together the two learned how paralysis strikes at the very heart of what it means to be human. George’s research, which began by Pollock’s hospital bed, became the start of their next adventure – to find and connect people around the world to fast-track a cure for paralysis. George has been a catalyst for a global collaboration between ground-breaking scientists creating a paralysis cure and is the subject of feature documentary, Unbreakable. She is a director on the board of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, a masters graduate from The College of Europe, Bruges, holds a diploma from Harvard and is a double-graduate of NUI Galway. Her TED talk, given with Mark at TED Global 2018 in Vancouver was released in early September.
Can leadership be taught? If so, how?
That’s an interesting question to think closely about. I think the answer is that leadership can be re-taught. The ‘how’ comes from understanding what happens to our innate understanding of our collective effort; of tribe. I think that we are all born with values and learn the skills that true leadership requires, but we are instead taught by our culture to either domineer or submit. If we want to teach leadership, we need to swap the dominance model for the partnership model of organising, a place where true leadership can happen. We need to teach first that the pyramid – the hierarchy, which we see across our culture and therefore mirrored in our organisations, with all its inequalities (and the abuse inevitably required to maintain those inequalities), is not necessarily an inescapable, human way of organising. We need to teach that we can become a circle again. Leadership, both personal and in relation to others, comes best from groups of connected people working together.
What do you think is the difference between management and leadership?
My experience of management has been that it is a one-way, top-down experience. Being managed, whether in traditional corporate structures and, ultimately, even in less obviously structured sectors, has never been a productive experience for me. I am not sure it is for anyone. In management structures, you might hear the words ‘ownership’ and ‘control’ being used and the hierarchy or seniority or titles being referenced. For me, good leadership has always inspired, rather than managed. Leadership harnesses a natural motivation to create and make better, rather than insisting grown adults behave as if they are in boarding school – being at their desks at a certain time, regardless of what they are doing as they sit there. Leadership trusts, leadership asks and listens. Management controls because it doesn’t trust and it doesn’t want to listen because it can only hear itself.
The world around us is changing faster than at any time in human history and we need more leaders to emerge. How do we make this happen?
Create the conditions for leaders to emerge. The present conditions are not encouraging. They might be improving in some areas, but they have a long way to go. This is perhaps easier to explain by specific example: the lack of women in senior positions in the traditional institutions like politics, business, or law. The standard answer given, and I believe a dangerous one, is that this comes from a lack of childcare provision; as if only women are parents, that all women who work will leave to have a family, and only mothers are women who want to lead. I think that young women leaders enter the world of business or politics and find themselves in conditions designed to break their spirit and mould them to the organisation, to the culture. They find themselves and their leadership hurt by the toxicity of the cultures they emerge into and they fight it for a time, but in the end, they intelligently opt out. From sexual harassment and assault to everyday bullying and control, to the tedium of managed work with a lack of purpose. I would say that also goes for men and gender non-conforming people, for all human beings – if you don’t subscribe to the dominance model, you don’t get on, and if you fight your way through it with your values intact, you become exhausted or bored. The even sadder thing is that many counter-culture movements fall into these models too. You find that being raised in the culture of hierarchy leaks into otherwise left-leaning or archetypal feminine spaces. I don’t think that this is inevitable or unpreventable either, I think it is just a culture we are taught eventually rising to the surface when not watched out for, when the alternative is not actually practiced, as opposed to talked about.
What is the one mistake you witness leaders making more frequently than others?
Forgetting that leadership, personal or otherwise, requires constant tending and practice. One of the navy seals involved in the Thai cave rescue said, “Under pressure, you don’t rise to the occasion, you sink to the level of your training. That’s why we train so hard.” Good, kind, generous, inspired and inspiring, productive leadership requires many things, such as: a healthy ego; a constant connection to principles and values; self-awareness and analysis; the ability to dare greatly – to fail on the way to success; being able for discomfort; and knowing how to collaborate and how to resolve conflict – because conflict is necessary for creativity and collaboration to take place and we must first and foremost care for people in this place. All of that requires that we constantly tend to leadership. That we train it. Otherwise, when things get hard or disaster strikes, (or even when things start to go very well, we are successful and we are in the high place), then we sink to the level of our training. The one mistake is forgetting that we will forget to tend to it.
What advice would you give to someone dealing with a high-pressure situation in their life or work?
That depends if it is the high pressure of having lots to do, or if it is high pressure that affects emotional well-being. I would advise you first identify which it is you are dealing with. I have just finished a ten month period of some really exciting work that coincided with a very exciting political time. When it came to the high pressure of lots to do and when that high pressure felt it might boil over in the office, I reminded myself and those I was working with of advice a pilot once gave a leadership group I was part of. He said that when the red light starts flashing on the dashboard of the plane the first thing you should do is order a cup of tea, then deal with it. It is, in fact, something sound in neurology; it is how our brains are wired. The cup of tea gives you some time to come out of the limbic brain where we are sent, where our body decides whether to fight, fly or freeze, and back into the rational logical neocortex, where perhaps the problem can be solved. So, when people start talking fast and sweating, we stop before anyone is short with anyone. Anger is not an acceptable release valve for this pressure.
When it comes to emotional high-pressure, I am a therapy pusher. Maintaining good mental health means that when the inevitable emotional high pressure comes – something that attacks the sense of self – that you have a ready-made support network, including yourself, to withstand it. My advice here would be to take your time, feel it, then bring in the strategies that work for you to move through it.
What are a few resources (books, blogs, podcasts, courses etc) you would recommend to someone looking to gain insight into becoming a better leader?
I could list hundreds!
Books and Online Resources
“Manifesto” by Caitlin Moran
“I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” and other autobiographies by Maya Angelou
“My Life on the Road” by Gloria Steinem;
“In the Body of the World” by Eve Ensler;
“From Good to Great” by Jim Collins
Anything written by or online resources such as his “Tuesday Tips” by Andy Bounds
“The Art of Asking” by Amanda Palmer
“Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl
“Headscarves and Hymens” by Mona Eltahawy
All TED talks, but in particular
“We Need to Talk About an Injustice” by Bryan Stevenson
“Why Good Leaders Make You Feel Safe” by Simon Sinek
“The Power of Vulnerability” and “Listening to Shame” by Brene Brown
“The Dream We Haven’t Dared to Dream” by Dan Pallotta
“Can We ‘have it all” by Anne-Marie Slaughter
Irish Times Women’s Podcast
The Guilty Feminist
New York Times
Jarlath Regan – Irishman Abroad
I completed the Global Leadership and Public Policy for the 21st Century course in Harvard and it was a life-changing experience. The ‘leading in a crisis’ course by Dutch Leonard and any of the HBS case studies are excellent resources.
Anything by or taught by Amy Cuddy, Harvard also.
I have had the privilege of some really incredible Irish leaders in my personal and work life, as well as people I have met or worked with around the world. Some are friends and mentors, and some I know just by following and admiring how they lead and work. I have learned so much from the leadership of others such as: Mark Pollock; Roisin Ingle; Mary McAuliffe; Ivana Bacik, Grace Dyas, Colm O’Gorman, Dr PantiBliss, Louise O’Neill; Tara Flynn; Bryan Stevenson; Alice-Mary Higgins; Maya Angelou; Mona Eltahawy; Lynn Rosenthal; Collette Kelleher; Simon O’Donnell; Olivia O’Leary; Noeleen Blackwell; Mary Robinson; Christopher and Dana Reeve; Michael Manganiello; Tarana Burke; Tracee Ellis Ross; Sandi Toksvig and Jude Kelly; Dr. Reggie V. Edgerton.