What do the famous horse trainer, Gai Waterhouse, and the high-flying entrepreneur and convicted criminal, Alan Bond, have in common?
What traits do former judge Michael Kirby and feminist revolutionary Germaine Greer share?
And can we learn anything from the stories of pioneers like burns surgeon Dr Fiona Wood and adventure-documentary maker Alby Mangels?
My mate and I set out to answer these questions in our new online series, The Thread. We tracked down 10 Aussie icons from different fields to learn what connects them and to figure out if anyone can do what they’ve done.
We also met with tennis star Pat Rafter, businessman Gerry Harvey, investment banker and philanthropist Simon McKeon, and solo sailor Jessica Watson.
Our thinking was that if we could lift the lid on tall-poppy syndrome, for just one minute, and ask straightforward questions of these people as to how they broke away from the pack, then we could elicit intriguing responses and maybe even uncover their common traits.
We weren’t disappointed. And to dive deeper into the 10 common threads we found running through each of their stories I teamed up with Professor Kevin Lowe, from the University of Sydney’s Business School, who is an expert in the field of leadership.
Having parents who are supportive but not obsessive and let you take risks was a common thread we saw run through everyone we met. The daughter of legendary thoroughbred trainer TJ Smith, Gai Waterhouse, shared with us: “I was determined not to fail. Not because I wanted to make money or be a success, I didn’t want to disappoint Dad.
“And that’s another thing that I think drives people forward, a passion, like my love for my father.”
Professor Lowe suggests this thread is in line with numerous studies into his field.
“The literature pretty clearly shows that authoritative parenting, giving you strong opinions, giving you strong boundaries, but not being rule based, tends to create more effective leaders,” he said.
Work harder than your peers on the things you’re good at and passionate about.
The Aussies we met pursued opportunities they liked and were always looking to do better than those around them.
Gerry Harvey put it best: “I think you just get up every day, do the best you can and go to bed at night and say, ‘I gave it my best shot.’
“What else can you do? I’ve got to recognise if that day comes where they’re doing it and I’m not, that is the day I’ve got to go.”
Professor Lowe said “out-competing people is feedback you’re on the right path.
“Leaders says to themselves: ‘I do have a purpose here. It’s to outperform everyone else in this particular task’.”
Refuse baseless criticism and prove naysayers wrong.
To reach the top, you’re going to have obstacles thrown your way. Whether because of their gender, sexuality, age, education, or other factors, the people we met had others in their lives who wanted to cut them down to size.
We liked Dr. Fiona Wood’s approach the most: “I learnt very early on that negative energy is a black hole, and if you want to waste yours go jump in it,” she said.
“So I just absolutely don’t engage in that kind of totally useless one-sided negative criticism. ‘You can’t be a surgeon’; this is when I learnt this. ‘Oh, why’s that?’ ‘You’re a woman.’ And I remember saying, ‘I’m really good at embroidery doesn’t that help?’”
Professor Lowe believes needing to overcome prejudice is a phenomenon that’s out there.
“Look at people like Muggsy Bogues,” he said.
“He’s 5’3″ and played in the NBA for 14 seasons. I’m sure everybody told him he could never play in the NBA.”
Put yourself in a position to be lucky and then seize your chances.
Everyone suggested luck was a crucial ingredient in helping them break away from the pack – but there was more to it than just this.
They worked hard, created opportunities for themselves and then acted on them.
Michael Kirby told us: “it’s like Peter Weir’s film, Dead Poet’s Society. It’s a matter of carpe diem. You seize the day but you’ve got to have the luck to get the day and to get the chances to seize.”
Take risks and don’t let the fear of failure hold you back. These Aussie trailblazers had all met with failure along the way.
It was the way they all treated failure that allowed them to break away from the pack. A prime example of this was with the America’s Cup winner, entrepreneur and eternal optimist, Alan Bond.
“Because it hasn’t worked, doesn’t mean that you necessarily have failed,” he told us.
“It may have been too early for the market, couldn’t get penetration, didn’t have enough capital, and you regroup all of those things and then you can move it on with that benefit of that experience.”
Professor Lowe weighs in: “When some people fail, they quit. Some give it another go.
“As an academic, you design a study, you think it’s the perfect study, and it fails. You must treat that as part of your work because it’s an experiment – it’s not a failure.
“The people who can have the mindset that failure is just one iteration of the experiment versus failure as the endgame simply describes what we often call resilience.”
Surround yourself with supporters who share your vision.
The people who’d reached the top did it with the help of others. They were good at attracting others around them.
As Jessica Watson explained to us: “there were people offering to help throughout the whole journey. And I realised somewhere along those lines, it was because they were able to share the journey, share that part of the dream and it became their voyage as well.”
“There’s no question that support is key,” Professor Lowe said.
“When you see that you can attract good people to the task, that reinforces your notion that you’re on the right path. You hear a lot about charisma, but a lot of it is really not person-based. People are attracted to vision as much as personality.”
Have a reason why you want to seek out and conquer the hardest challenges.
Everyone we met had something that pulled them out of bed in the morning. The former Australian of the Year, investment banker and philanthropist Simon McKeon said: “I can feel deep down a sense of irritation or grumpiness with myself when I am just not giving a bit.”
“Everybody wants to be a part of something cool,” Professor Lowe said.
“The sociologist Studs Terkel says ‘work is a search for meaning while in search of our daily bread.’
“Steve Jobs went to John Sculley at Pepsi and said: ‘Do you want to sell colored sugar water the rest of your life or come with me and change the world?’ Sculley left Pepsi for Apple because he was going to get more meaning out of his work while earning his daily bread.”
Having a childhood shaped by independence and discovery was a common thread.
Jack and I realised the things that happen to us before the age of 18 have a huge impact on our lives.
Alby Mangels, who had been estranged from his father and lost his mother at a young age suggested the freedom and independence that gave him was one of the best things that happened in his life.
“I was free to make lots of mistakes and that was good,” he said.
Professor Lowe suggests the literature on personality is fairly clear that someone’s personality is largely in place by age eight and pretty firmly in place by age 13.
“One of the big five factors of personality is a construct called ‘openness to experience’,” he said.
“You can measure openness to experience in children as young as eight and show that it will be predictive of being more likely to achieve a breakthrough across a range of fields.”
Challenge the status quo and have unwavering courage in your own convictions.
These people did things differently. And when they stepped out on their own, they had to believe in themselves.
Someone who overturned a lot of the world’s thinking on feminism, Professor Germaine Greer, explained: “I think you have to listen to your own voice.”
Professor Lowe said “self-efficacy predicts success.
“Self-efficacy is formed early in lives. The parent who sits there and says, ‘Okay, Suzy, you failed, but you can do it,’ is building self-efficacy in that child.
“Once you graduate university – and for some people much earlier – you begin to get more firmly rooted in an identity.”
Actively manage the media to amplify your message.
Everyone we met understood how to leverage the media to their advantage.
As the former world number-one tennis star Pat Rafter put it: “You can turn media around. And once you’ve got the media on your side it’s very hard for them to write a negative article about you because everyone will bag that person.”
Professor Lowe suggests that every one of us is a brand.
“Part of changing the world, or driving a large organization towards a purpose, is managing your brand well and attracting people to that brand,” he said.
“Getting people to pay attention to you is a good thing if you’re trying to further a cause because you can gather support in places that you might not otherwise have access to.”