Lifeline Canberra CEO Carrie Leeson is the first person I’m sharing a hot drink – and some intimate conversation – with to kick off my new series, Canberrans in Cars Getting Coffee. Yes, it’s inspired by the Jerry Seinfeld version; and the plan is to truly go deep with some of the capital’s most prominent and inspiring people.
Carrie’s an easy first choice. We met years ago at a Lifeline fundraising event and I’m an avid and ongoing supporter of Lifeline’s work. I love Carrie’s tenacity, creativity and the sense she has a view of the world that’s much bigger than herself.
When she starts to list the mentors she’s had in life, I understand why.
“I was working for a gym chain in South Africa in the 1990s and that gym chain was acquired by Richard Branson,” she says, downing a forkful of hummingbird cake at Rodney’s at Pialligo.
“So I was up close and personal and professional with someone of his calibre in business. I learnt from him – especially the art of the tough conversation.”
Growing up in South Africa, in a time when the country was undergoing enormous transformation, meant the work of Nelson Mandela had a huge impact on a young Carrie.
“Just seeing how he had the capacity and the empathy to balance the fear and the hatred with hope and productive, real positive outcomes,” she says. “It was incredible.”
But it’s her own mother and father whom Carrie lists as the defining advisers in her life.
“I describe my parents as role models totally – they’re total opposites,” she says.
“My dad’s a real Robinson Crusoe while my mum’s a real lady, full of dignity and grace.
“She’s had a lot of controversy and a lot of heartache come her way but she’s always managed it so gracefully.
“My dad was a ‘dive in and think later’.
“He was an electrical engineer. He struggled with alcoholism for most of his adult life. He packed all of that in to buy an island off the coast of Mozambique and build a resort – in a country where he didn’t speak the language, which was Portuguese.
“Watching him, I knew that anything was possible. You want to do it? Go for it. He was always saying to me, ‘You want to go overseas? Go. Anything’s possible.’
“Whereas my mom was my safety net. She was, you know, ‘Yes, go, absolutely, do all of those things. Anything’s possible, but you’re only ever going to fall this far.’
“So that’s a beautiful place for a child to be.”
While it’s her full-time job to promote the incredible work of Lifeline and her staff, Carrie wants me to know that behind the scenes, her team “is everything”.
“We’ve got confronting content coming through the phones and across the support line all of the time,” she says.
And on any given day that’s all manageable and doable.
“But when life happens to you, that’s where the true grit and the culture and the cohesion and the team comes through.
“I’m going through personal issues at the moment and my team – and that includes [Lifeline patron] Brendan Nelson – have just stepped in and stepped up and stepped around me and gone, ‘Right, what do you need?’
“It’s beyond a team – it’s family.”
It’s the cliché of all clichés but I want to know what Carrie’s looking forward to in future.
“I don’t mind where I am or what I’m doing or what my role is. I think it’s about a feeling,” she says.
“And I wish everyone’s KPI (key performance indicator), for themselves or children, was happiness.
“Find the joy in what you’re doing. Find the thing that makes you jump out of bed and want to do it. It doesn’t feel like work. It’s food for the soul.”
This is an edited version of the story first published in the 26 September 2019 edition of Canberra Weekly magazine.