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Editor's Agenda

Women, leadership and birth order: Does it matter?

/ Dec 05, 2012 8:25AM / Print / ()

Birth order determining your ability to lead

I'm the youngest of three children. If I'm to believe some of the talk on how birth order determines one's ability to lead, I may as well give up all future ambitions of leadership. Such responsibilities would be better off reserved for those who came first.

But then plenty of other women should have seen their leadership aspirations dashed at an early age. Prime Minister Julia Gillard somehow overcame fate on the matter – her sister Alison is three years older – as did Governor-General Quentin Bryce, who was second-born in her family.

Recently, I interviewed business leader Elizabeth Proust AO for our Agenda Setters series. It was a little difficult to ignore the matter of birth order given Proust is the eldest of nine, and that just like some research would have suggested she do, she's built an incredible career as one of the country's most respected female business leaders, including as the current chair of Nestle Australia and the Bank of Melbourne.

"Not many people are the eldest of nine," Proust told me. "It teaches you from a young age to look after people."

Happily, Proust went on to share her view that not all leaders are born that way, nor do all great leaders learn their best skills in childhood.

"I've seen lots of normally very shy people assume great positions of leadership. I think people can find it in the sporting field. They can learn it by looking to a range of mentors. They can find it in the workplace and in community groups. Often people just step up."

Proust says her natural leadership abilities cannot solely be attributed to taking the helm of a long line of siblings at an early age.

She cites a number of other turning points – including those that occurred in her childhood.

She says when her family moved from Sydney to Wollongong when she was 12, and she "never quite fitted in" there.

"My burning ambition for the first six years I was there was to get back to a big city," she said. Proust made it to Melbourne, went to university, married at the "ridiculous age" of 21 and pursued a long career in leadership, including as head of the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet and CEO of the City of Melbourne.

She also watched her siblings go on to pursue a diverse range of interesting and fulfilling careers. Including in the leadership realm.

Has your birth order had an impact on your career? Share your thoughts below.

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