She finishes washing her smalls. I watch her from my bed as she carefully places them on a towel. I’m an arm’s length away. She rolls the towel up and I reach out a hand. With no words exchanged, she hands me one end. In a timeless manoeuvre, we wring out the clothing, first one way, then the other. She comments on the clothes line I’ve brought with me. ‘So perfect’ she says with her Costa Rican accent. ‘We’ve been doing this for thousands of years’, I say smiling. She smiles back.

There are many moments like this which I’ve imprinted, moments of wordless synergy.

I have a hero in my cabin. A powerhouse who did what many thought was impossible. I bring her tea in the morning; she quietly reaches out to take my computer from me when I fall asleep with it on; I set an alarm in the morning; she does yoga, I do impact exercise. We hang our handwashing on our makeshift line. We both move around the cabin with little to hide.

Any one who cares about climate change knows Christiana Figueres. She led the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) from 2010 to 2016. She was once upon a time an anthropologist, who became an organisational development manager, who became Costa Rica’s negotiator for climate change at the UNFCCC. She is driven by fairness, that no people should be disadvantaged. She took on the unenviable task of Secretary of the UNFCCC after the Copenhagen Conference of the parties in 2009 (COP 15). She replaced Ivo de Boer.

If this had been a publicly listed corporation, the shareholders would have been baying for blood. The COP was a complete disaster; no agreements were reached, global leaders felt unheard, betrayed, angry and, as some have said ‘deeply unwilling to talk again, divided and critical’.

The staff of the UNFCCC were exhausted, displaced and, in the face of overwhelming data affirming the need for leadership alignment, bewildered and depressed.

This was the organisation Christiana took over, progressively resurrected and, in fact, led to the now famous agreement by 195 countries committed to limiting temperature rise to well below 2.00 degrees Centigrade above pre-industrial levels by the second half of the century.  The agreement was to strive for a maximum of 1.5 degrees (i.e. it would never go above this) and is known to us all as the Paris Climate Agreement.

I find myself looking at her and reflecting on what she has achieved and wondering (not infrequently) how we come to share a room on a ship in Antarctica.

We have walked and talked together a few times but mostly, we have shared this strange and compelling Homeward Bound experience. We have both become two amongst many – skilled in some areas, but largely (as with all the other women) humbled by the capability, generosity, good will, courage and vulnerability of all the women with whom we are sharing the journey. There is doubtless respect for Christiana, but it is not hierarchical and, as time progresses, it is a humble thing.

I have discovered that we both share, in large part, a similar mindset as leaders. Neither of us are scientists, but we have a deep regard for the practice, the critical thinking that underpins it and the importance for all of us of the data generated. She has been exploring Buddhism for the past four years. The focus on mindfulness, intention, compassion, self-awareness and the impact on our leadership are shared commitments.

Christiana talks about stubborn optimism (the word ‘stubborn’ entertains her). I talk about the importance of purposeful intention. She understands in her bones that an effective leader has a passion for cause and people. Any conversation at this level flows with ease between us and, indeed, we largely share common definitions. We both pursue self-awareness and the place of love (self, other, context). We both hold that the insight from this shape our leadership. Her commitment to her daughters, to being the sort of mother who grows capable, confident loved young women, is evident in many conversations. We are both mothers first and foremost.

She is fiercely intelligent. Her ability to appreciate the needs of others with neutrality, curiosity and openness is a thing to behold. She can articulate patterns in conversations and thinking, identifies ordinary and complex needs with equal grace. She sees where the flow will take people. She talks quickly, with an endearing habit (when her brain outpaces her mouth) of finishing an idea with ‘Dadadadadadadadadada’ so she can say what she really wants to say next. You follow her thinking and find yourself nodding – bewildered sometimes at how obvious her observations are.

I am not surprised this woman pulled off one of the negotiation feats of the century, on behalf of all of us. I am often surprised, nonetheless, that how she did this is so comprehensible to all the women she’s talking to. It feels like home. Of course, that’s how we should lead. It’s a tragedy that it is the exception not the rule.

She enters each part of Homeward Bound as one amongst many and she celebrates and elevates all she talks to. Common sense flows from her at high speed. I am aware, however, that this order of common sense is not common practice.

Undoubtedly, she is an iconic leader, but she is first and foremost an example of the leader we all wish for, man or woman. She is clear, self-aware, committed to helping and evidences a deep commitment to relationships. She is also vulnerable and unquestionably authentic.

I wonder who in the room, who amongst our alumni will emerge to have a similar role in our world, I wonder how many will rise up to lead with such grace and care. I wonder who will lead with equal awareness, making common sense common practice.

We are aiming for the hundreds, if not thousands.

Fabian Dattner
CEO Homeward Bound