Dawn Nicholson-O’Brien on Virtuosity

This week Sister Leadership is honoured to feature Dawn Nicholson-O’Brien. We connected at the previous Women’s Executive Network breakfast , and I was so impressed by her enthusiasm for spirit and purpose in leadership. With Dawn’s experience and approach to life, she’s a natural fit for our Sister Leadership theme of virtuosity.

DawnDawn is president of Celtic Oracle, which offers executive consulting services and reflects her considerable experience in modern governance, policy development and delivery, program and change management, and more. Dawn is a fantastic example of mixing larger concepts such as spirit and passion into the world of business and creating positive change.

In this interview, we invited Dawn to reflect upon the theme of virtuosity. What is virtuosity? We see it as having great skills and abilities – often considered for musicians, artists, etc. but equally applicable in the world of business.

Question 1: Dawn, has there ever been a moment in time in your mastery of music, sciences, the arts, or any experience when you unconsciously/consciously mastered this domain with ease or challenge? Can you describe the journey?

The journey of discovery is one that every human being remembers. None of us knew how to ride a bicycle when we first made the attempt and wobbled along with equal measures of fear and exhilaration. I vividly recall navigating the road on my first two-wheel bike with my father’s hand steadying the seat and handlebars, uttering words of reassurance, as I finally gained speed and took flight independently. This challenge seemed initially daunting and then, later, became a source of joy and of freedom.

The first time that I composed a poem spontaneously as a child, I read it aloud to my mother sharing my treasured ideas tentatively. My mother met this offering with true delight and opened the door to new possibilities for me as she understood intuitively that my poem was nothing less than a declaration of my deepest desires in life. She encouraged my love of language and of expression.

My parents, family, teachers, and those who have served and continue to serve as informal coaches and mentors, as peers, leaders and friends in my life and career enabled me to take great leaps into the future.

Parents and Dawn

Dawn as a baby with her parents Roy and Shirley.

I came to understand that human beings – as biological entities – are never in a resting state of equilibrium. As an adventurer and ‘explorationist’ of sorts, I learned that there would be inevitable breakdowns along the way as I attempted new challenges, but that these were the price of admission for any creative endeavor and frequently led to exciting breakthroughs. This desire to innovate became the hallmark of my career over nearly four decades and inspires me today in my related consulting work.

Our dreams and our ability to explore the adjacent possibility of new worlds, new experiences and emerging reality, permit us to commit to a new future that has never existed before, accepting unpredictability and change. As the landscape around us evolves, grows and changes, so do we evolve, adopting favourable mutations. In this way, unlike the ‘machine’ model of efficiency, we are firmly rooted in the biosphere as biological organisms, learning to navigate the fertile verge between chaos and disorder that is a feature of our daily life.

When I first picked up a violin, I imagined that I would be able to swoop and soar through musical scores from Bach to Gershwin, and envisioned the kind of virtuosity that extraordinary musicians of the calibre of Fritz Kreisler coaxed out of their violins, sending shivers down the listeners’ spines and stirring emotions.

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The reality was radically different as I diligently repeated scales and more pedestrian scores, year in and year out, building on the lessons that I had received on the piano and had applied as I sang in various choirs. When I became the head of the second violin section in an Atlantic symphony youth orchestra, I was privileged to play an incredible piece of music created by Helen Creighton evocative of the ocean and of waves crashing, of the sweep of Maritime history.

I knew to look to our conductors, Chalmers Doane and Ninette Babineau, who patiently walked us through every nuance of the music until we had mastered the constituent components. They helped us to interpret not just what the notes were on the page but to give life to the emotions and the story underlying each note.


Dawn (left) with her sister, Michelle (center) and brother, Jeff (right)

My fellow violinists, the wind, string and percussion musicians in the orchestra, along with the conductors, formed what I call a kind of “courage network” so that we could collectively decode the magic woven into the score. Our cherished conductors let us know that “failure” was not a word that we needed to fear, but a temporary obstacle or impediment that held weight only if we elected to give our various breakdowns power over our actions. We learned to focus like a laser beam on our breakthroughs, until there were more breakthroughs than breakdowns in our performances.

When I embarked on a novel scientific project in high school and was selected for a major national science fair, the only young woman in a sea of Grade 12 students delivering presentations on scientific discoveries, I took on a very ambitious subject area. I chose to compare human DNA to that of primates, complete with blood analyses conducted at a local hospital decades before related work had been started on genome sequencing. I won awards for my project and was actively encouraged in my scientific explorations not only by my Halifax West High School science teachers but by my family physicians.

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Dr. Bruce Morton and Dr. Byron Reid came to the Science Fair to see me explain and defend my thesis. Dr. Reid, Dr. Morton, and, a number of scientists attending the fair as judges proceeded to grill me on each and every one of my findings – and I relished this spirited debate. Remarkably, in their discussion of the project with me, these physicians and scientists treated me as a peer, although I was only 17 years of age, and in so doing fanned the fires of my explorations. I was transformed by this experience and pursued related scientific interests later on in my career, in my PhD studies in my 40s, and in the work I conducted in various executive roles on science, innovation and knowledge transfer in my 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s for the Government of Canada and in the private sector.

Question 2: Mastery is a process of unconscious and conscious competence to being able to teach others a skill. Whom do you need to be, or, to become in your quest for mastery? If you had three suggestions, what would they be?

The notion of mastery, in some ways, is a relic of the Industrial era and of “man as machine.” While the Industrial Revolution represented enormous technological and economic progress, the idea that machines could and would master every human endeavour and would forever improve the lot of humankind is a notion that deserves further discussion.

The kind of ‘mastery’ that arises from this era, and that continues to permeate the language of executive boardrooms, business schools, institutions and organizations today, is still rooted in the perfect planning and execution of strategies, riddled with notions of ‘strategy as war’. The concept is that if one tries hard enough, undertaking a number of prescribed steps to which rigid adherence is required, business, organizational and personal excellence will surely follow. In my many decades as an executive, I found this concept to be morally and intellectually bankrupt.

I have never been an adherent of this school of thought.

As a resident of the biosphere and as a biological being, I recognize that diversity and variety are the key characteristics of the living world, of the human species, and, of the discovery process. Rather than a formula for learning or for success, I have seen over and over again that the most extraordinary discoveries and innovations – including exciting personal breakthroughs – occur in an organic, messy and inchoate fashion in the midst of networks of relationships of trust that are intricate and are non-linear. And, there are always massive breakdowns taking place that inspire us to invent!

For me, therefore, mastery is a lifelong evolution that occurs when we take on board new possibilities, or create the DNA of discovery through inquiry, through experimentation of the adjacent possibilities that we wish to dream into being. When we translate our dreaming, visioning and play into the creation of a new reality, it is as part of a human symphony. And, this is never a solitary pursuit. It occurs across and within human communities, where we, as social beings, collectively redefine who we are and what we wish to become.

Despite ubiquitous references to the Digital era and huge advances in artificial intelligence, robotics and evolving technological systems, to learn a new language or to become a good parent still requires that we make an enormous investment of our time and of our spirit. We are motivated to engage with other human beings in what I believe is the ‘tribal campfire’ of conversations spanning recorded human history.

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The plasticity of the human mind and the irrepressible human spirit in our quest for development, for new relationships of meaning, and for passion and purpose, sustain us as the architects of our own futures. And, with the benefit of my Celtic background, I am open to the idea that various forms of divinity are at work in this human experience.

We are always a learner and always a teacher, whether we are consciously aware of the roles that we are playing or not. As an executive coach, myself, among other roles, I understand that in any given human interaction, I am at times Yoda or Obi-wan-Kenobi of the Star Wars stories imparting life’s lessons and meaning to those who have need of acquired wisdom and hard-won experience.

At other times, I am Princess Leia or Luke Skywalker absorbing lessons from those much wiser than I, irrespective of age, and drawing meaning from the universe. In presentations around the globe and in meetings with people from all backgrounds, I always take away lessons and reflections to be applied to my life.

When we embark on the never-ending journey of self-discovery or ‘becoming’ that ‘mastery’ implies, we are designing our future as a form of continuous inquiry and taking action based on our deepest aspirations as human beings. The journey never ends and it is not meant to do so.

I always ask the question: “Is your future living up to your dreams?” Too many people relinquish their personal dreams and power to institutions and to others, forfeiting their ability to bring their dreams into existence.

As my father imparted to me as a teenager, dreams are glorious and are unique to us as human beings. But, in order to bring them to fruition, we must have ‘dreams with deadlines.’ That means constantly setting new deadlines and making commitments to your envisioned future. Yes, there will be many impediments that arise seeking to conspire against the realization of your dreams, but, do not let go of your dreams. Persist in your path and never surrender the ability to give birth to your glorious future.

So, in essence:

  1. Be fearless in your dreams – tapping into your childlike wonder and endless possibilities.

  2. Set dreams with deadlines – declaring what you wish to have done by a certain year or date, working back from your desired future state.

  3. Be tenacious in the execution of your dreams – and while you may repeatedly revise your milestones en route, don’t give up on your ultimate journey of discovery and your inner self.

  4. Create your courage network – and surround yourself with fellow adventurers and dreamers who support your aspirations and who will give you the creative ‘yeast’ you need to succeed; ignore the exhortations of naysayers, cynics, the defeatists and those of impoverished spirit.

Question 3: To whom do you relate as a favorite fictional character in literature or in the movies? Is there a life lesson to be derived from these characters or a metaphor that you feel plays out in your life?

There are many fictional characters that I admire, making it difficult to choose just one character or protagonist. Most recently, I read a magical book, entitled The Lobster Kings .

The author, Alexi Zentner, evokes a powerful story of a fictional family blessed with the bounty of the sea, set against the backdrop of an island that is claimed by both the US and Canada. In the King family, the next heir to the three-hundred year-old fishing operation is a young woman named Cordelia King. When her brother, the presumed heir, is lost at sea as a young boy, Cordelia’s father strenuously resists the fact that his daughter is the only one in the family who has the sea in her veins and who is a born fisher and entrepreneur. When it is almost too late, her father comes to the realization that Cordelia is a stellar ship’s captain and community leader on the island, worthy of assuming the mantle of the family heritage and business.

The journey of discovery that takes place in the King family, in the leadership echelons of the island community, and in the mainland community where the Kings conduct their trade and economic activities, is a lesson in the endurance and tenacity required to succeed in the face of brutal human and environmental conditions.

I was inspired by Cordelia’s tenacity, fearlessness, and her ingenuity in bringing her dream to life in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Cordelia discovers in her family lineage a powerful woman who was said to have been a mermaid and who inspires her to disrupt the storied past of her male King ancestors, in favour of the creation of a future where women captain the fishing fleets.

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It is a mystical and uplifting tale – complete with epic setbacks, death on the high seas, the resilience of communities, and the humbling majesty of the natural world at work. It is a tale of the spirit and of the spirituality that defines us as human beings. The life lessons that are central to the book remind us of the beauty of our dreams and of our enchanted place in the universe.

Above all, Cordelia speaks to our power to create magic in our lives and in the lives of others – to imagine ourselves into a desired future by trial and error, drawing on our inner resources and opening our hearts and minds to the dreams of others around us.

Cordelia inherits paintings from her mermaid forebear that depict the future of the King family. Cordelia becomes at once a seer and a prophet of an imagined future but only when she allows herself to believe in the possibilities depicted by the paintings.

I am guided in my own life by the ‘awakening to possibilities’ that Cordelia represents.

Question 4: What is your contribution to life on a broader scale? How does your spiritual contribution make our world a better place in which to live?

As many people have taken me under their wing over the course of nearly six decades and opened doors to me, serving as my guides to the mysteries of human existence, I owe a debt that I am endeavouring to repay with ‘interest’ and that will span my lifetime.

As I was mentored, sustained, supported and coached, befriended and cherished by many in my career and in my personal life, I have also invested my time, my heart, mind and soul in those who have sought and continue to seek my assistance. This is a sacred trust from where I sit.

For those who have faltered in their path, or who have surrendered their dreams to the daily onslaught of demands and of sheer economic survival, and who are seeking a new direction, I do everything I can to help them rejuvenate their deepest dreams and aspirations, to listen to their inner sense of possibility, and to help them engage in a conversation to invent their future. We carry many identities and wear many hats in our professional and personal lives, even in our spiritual life, but, ultimately, we likely live only one life in our temporal existence.

As a believer in the power of the human spirit, and of its expression in the biological universe of which we are a part, I carry a torch for the perpetual re-invention of humanity that is at the heart of the human odyssey. I do my very best to illuminate and to banish the dark corners that occasion self-doubt and fear.

From the ancient cave dwellers whose cave drawings animated their fondest wishes to the celluloid films and recorded songs of our ancestors, to our inter-connected, modern world, I see the continuing conversation occurring about the future that we wish to create. Canada has a long tradition of intrepid pioneers who departed from the path of their times to discover a better path to the future. Our lives are the richer for their gifts of the imagination and a dogged determination to help shape the future. It is a journey worth taking – and making – with others.


Sister leadership would very much like to thank Dawn for her generosity in the sharing of her experiences, and time given toward creating this article. She can be reached at dnicholsonobrien@rogers.com and you can view her website at www.celticoracle.ca

Till next week!


Camille Boivin is founder of Sister Leadership, certified in EQi 2.0 and EQ360, a master practitioner of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), has been coaching high-level women and men for over six years, and is now opening her expertise to those emerging in business. Camille pulls her blog topics from her unique coaching approach that combines her training as a EQi 2.0 and EQ360 certified facilitator with the dig-deeper tools of NLP.

Get in touch here if you’d like to talk with Cam about group or one-on-one coaching, and EQ assessments. With the miracle of Skype and telephones – distance is no issue!


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