Thursday, 29 December 2011

Drive time!

I’m learning to drive. If you live in the Oxford area this should be enough to convince you that the New Year is as good a time as any for becoming a hermit. If you would still like to go about your business then you can take comfort in the fact that I am mostly driving in first gear at no more than ten miles an hour so the damage is likely to be minimal if you do come across me.

Taking to the roads is a big thing for me as I had an accident while learning to drive when I was 17 and haven’t driven since. Aside from being a total wuss I have reasoned with myself that till now I’ve always lived in cities so I have never really needed to drive that badly. And it’s greener. And wouldn’t it be cooler to cycle around anyway? The answer to the last question is no, unless by cooler you mean colder. That it is.  I have always said that if it ever came to the point where I was missing opportunities by not driving then I would man up and learn. Well, that time has come and after a no-nonsense email from a friend I decided to go for it and booked my lessons, the first of which I had today.
I’ve actually had nightmares about being behind the wheel and I had no idea how I would respond to being back in the driving seat. After a few instructions to ‘breath, for God’s sake woman’ I was on the road and, gulp, driving. At one point as I went up the main road braving the move up to third gear (go me!) I suddenly realised what I was doing and yelled ‘I’m driving!’ to which the instructor nervously responded ‘Err, yes. You are.’ I still have a long way to go till I’m test ready and more importantly ready to face the roads confident and solo but it was amazing to be doing something I had feared for so long and realising that it’s just not so bad after all.
I had developed a bit of a fear of public speaking a few years back (to the point where my knees actually knocked together!) that I well and truly bashed last year and now I can’t remember what it was like to be afraid of speaking in front of people. I feel so natural speaking and most importantly happy to be myself in front of an audience. So I hope driving goes the same way. Now that I’m conquering that Everest I’m looking around for other things that I’ve been avoiding and it’s really exciting to see that there isn’t really anything. For that reason I’m really excited about 2012. I know that by the end of it I’ll be able to confidently say ‘Well, I gave that my all.’ And as my very clever Dad used to say before an exam ‘You can’t do any more than your best.’ Amen to that!

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Christmas time in Rome

I’ve been thinking for a few days now what to say about our trip to Rome and I’ve been at a loss. Not because there isn’t enough to say but because there is so much. So first I thought I would post a few snaps of our trip that sum up what a breathtakingly beautiful city it is and some the festivities we experienced there like this amazing display of fairy lights...

I think there will be a few blog posts out of our trip as there was just so much to think about. Rome is a place that feels saturated with power, unsurprisingly really as it was the seat of a great empire, the ruins of which are all over the city (perhaps something to learn there about the nature of empire but that’s one for another day!) and the home of the empire that is the Roman Catholic Church. We found ourselves in so many weird and wonderful places as we wandered the back streets around the major monuments. On the way to the Spanish steps we stumbled across a whole road dedicated to what I call ‘church bling’ – Bishop’s Mitres encrusted with jewels, gold communion cups, gilded bibles. I’ve never seen anything like it. Another street away and we were surrounded by all the big fashion names – Gucci, Prada, Jimmy Choo.
So many of the buildings in Rome are a testament to people striving for greatness, whether that is a neighbourhood church designed by Bernini or the frescos by Michelangelo. It is inspiring and overwhelming all at once. But what I loved most about Rome is what lies beneath the glitz and glamour, the heart of the place that is warm and generous and typified for me by the big bowls of steaming pasta and the glass of limoncello that appears at the end of your meal free of charge. The language barrier wasn't such a problem when it came to making a whole lot of yummy noises over yet another amazing meal or having a boogie to a four piece band in a local wine bar. Good moves are international!
And so now we've back home with our family to celebrate and enjoy some well earned time together. Christmas Eve is one of the most special nights of the year for me. It was Christmas time seven years ago that in two weeks I went from calling myself an athiest to calling myself a Christian -  as bewildering a turn of events as it sounds! It was Christmas eve that I prayed a tentative prayer to 'give it a go with God' that has lead me down the most wonderful and extraordinary road since. 2012 promises to be a very interesting year indeed and for me I can trace it all back to that Christmas night without which so much would never have happened and so much joy would have been missed. So it really is a Happy Christmas this year and every year. And with that it's time to give you all my best wishes for you and yours this Christmas.
Happy Christmas to you!

Monday, 12 December 2011

Italian Adventures

This Sunday, weather and health permitting, we are off to Rome. I have been to Rome before but only for one day. Much as Rome wasn’t built in a day it can’t be visited in one either so I’ve been hoping to go back since then to see what I missed and to soak up a bit more of the place. I plan to do a lot of what I haven’t been able to do much of in the last few weeks - wander about, stare at the beautiful things and spend time with my husband.  I have started to think that I am married to a pile of school reports as he hasn’t seemed to have emerged from them for weeks now. I seem to have become surgically attached to my Blackberry. Our trip to Rome will be guaranteed report and email free. Bliss.

The Roof of the Sistine Chapel from The Telegraph

The trip is being partly funded by some money that my Grandma left me. It’s quite ironic that I would be using money she gave me to go and feast in Italy as she hated any food that wasn’t either from a Birds Eye packet or could be traced back at least four generations to an olde English house wife.  She never has the opportunity to travel but I think that if she had of been born when I was born then she would have. Talking to my great aunt at my Granny’s funeral my Gran was something of an adventurer in her youth. She signed herself up to join the Women’s Air Force during the War to the horror of her family. She asked her sisters to go with her but they were both married and refused so she went on her own. She always said it was the most exciting thing she ever did. While she was there she met my Granddad and soon became a married woman herself and that was the end of that!
Have you ever had the conversation with people about what era you would have liked to of been born in if not the one you were? I have always said I was made for this time and wouldn’t exchange it for the world, particularly as a woman. This is my first Christmas without my Grandma but it’s also the first Christmas with a new member of the family, my gorgeous and charming little niece. I’m pleased that she will grow up in a place and time where she can have as many adventures as she chooses and marriage is a happy option and not a necessity (Though I’m sure a man in an RAF uniform wasn’t too hard to take on for my Nan!)
When I hear about my Granny as a young woman she doesn’t seem so different to me. A stubborn streak, going her own way – it rings a few bells! And I can tell you that my niece is showing signs of being cut from the same cloth! Even though my Granny’s experiences made it that a few days in Rome was an impossible thought, I like to think that she will see a bit of it through me on a trip she made possible. So off we go to marvel a while at the Sistine Chapel and throw a coin or two into the Trevi Fountain on her behalf. Despite her hatred of Lasagne I like to think that she’d actually heartily approve!

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Follow the leader?

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about leadership. I, like most people, have areas of my life where I consider myself to be a leader and other areas where I am very much the sheep at the back of the queue merrily trotting behind the others. I think that is quite healthy, stopping us from becoming too self-important. You have to be a pompous person indeed to never be led by anyone else. It always makes me smile when you meet someone who is a very stern ‘boss’ at work and then you meet their two year old who has them entirely subjected to their will. We all have our Everest!

Recently I’ve encountered a number of very effective leaders with very different styles. In many cases they have been successful where I thought that kind of style would be like walking in to a lion’s den dressed in the Lady Gaga meat dress. But alas, Daniel-like, they have survived. Some have even has the lions rolling over on their backs to have their bellies tickled. As these leaders are so different, I wonder whether good leadership is about the leader being true to who they are and so super effective at it or if it’s about them being what the context needs them to be and them understanding that? What do you think? If people need tough words do you get tough? If they need a bit of TLC do you become fluffy and obliging? I suppose that is part of it, reading the dynamics of the group you find yourself in. That idea also makes some sense to me as skills and personality are always evolving.

I’ve worked with leaders who are very directional, and often very successful as a result. One person’s view point is easier to reach than a group consensus but then will people really follow if they aren’t heard? If their presence in the team is incidental and of no real relevance to the leader’s vision of moving a group or organisation forwards? In my experience you can lose heart with that kind of leader who doesn’t value you as an individual. You then start to think of yourself first just as they are doing and the team dynamic quickly breaks down.

One thing I can certainly pin down as an essential of leadership, and a very interesting one at that, is character. Because a good leader, after all, is surely just someone that people want to follow. They are a person that you see something in, something you want and value.There are many leaders who use their power or authority over people to make them do as they want. They are managers rather than leaders I suppose. Are the results of that kind of leadership permanent or just temporary? To use a modern day analogy, it’s the boss who when their back is turned the staff are all on Facebook.  I do believe that great leaders are those who inspire and for that reason it has to be about the heart and insight both for their cause and for the people they lead. 

Any thoughts?