It’s time to stop following outdated models of leadership and embrace a culture that works for women, not just men
Women leaders lack self-confidence, right? Well, yes and no. Certainly it seems every woman wants more of it. It is universally the main desired outcome from the women in leadership programmes we run. And I’d be rich if I had a pound for every time a woman says sorry.
Perhaps it’s just a British thing but apologising for speaking seems to have become a national female tic. Over the years of coaching women leaders I was first astonished then tired of hearing the same refrain: “I wish I was more self-confident.” Then I stopped believing it. I came to see it as an acceptable veil for a host of other issues – disappointment, frustration, fear and fury. I’ve come to realise we are asking the wrong questions and chasing the wrong goals.
The question we should be asking is not why aren’t women more confident or brave but what is it about our workplaces that dampen women’s fire? The answers certainly don’t lie in some female genetic confidence deficit.
Our working culture does not serve women well
It’s a mixture of nature and nurture but also of culture: the now-pervasive Anglo-American working culture that rewards extroversion, decisive action and competitiveness does not serve women well. If women continue to aspire to our outdated model of the action-hero leader then they will continue to operate with one hand tied behind their back, damaged in a race they can’t win.
Research into group intelligence shows that teams perform best if they contain a high number of women. They tend to make links, encourage the quiet ones to contribute, search for synergies – they maximise the whole group’s resources.
And there are now enough women in leadership positions to observe similar tendencies: they empower others, distribute leadership, pay attention to emerging creative shoots rather than opt for the bold, innovative gesture. Importantly, they are really good at building relationships.
A study by MRG2 of 13,100 leaders from more than 15 countries found that women leaders received higher ratings than men on most competencies, including credibility, plus on the two overarching leadership competencies, overall effectiveness and future potential.
Women leaders are valued by both men and women. But why don’t women feel this at work? The trouble is that as women move from education to the world of work, they swap support from passionate teachers for pressure from anxious managers. They swap friendly chats and sharing ideas in seminars for calculated career advancing networking and they swap the pleasure of studying something they love for targets and goals based on corporate definitions of success. It’s no wonder that women lose their footing.
Survive, thrive, change the rules
In our women’s leadership programmes we focus on three areas that counter these difficulties:
Firstly, what do you need to survive in this particular jungle? To stay in the game you need to learn the ropes, but hanging on by one’s fingernails is not fun.
Secondly, what is needed to thrive? How can you flourish in the environment, as it is, enjoy yourself and do well?
Thirdly, the big question: can women change the rules of the game? Yes. The rules are not set in stone – and they are ripe for challenging.
We all know that current business models are unraveling, that smart entrepreneurs everywhere are piloting new approaches and that Generation Y (soon to dominate the global workplace) are happier in a cafe than at a desk, and are questioning the old norms of earning a living. Three key areas seem to reignite women’s fire at work:
1) To survive women need to understand power
Women need to understand power, how it differs from authority and how it is played to suppress and manipulate. When challenged, men tend to play harder or get aggressive, while women often withdraw and generally blame themselves.
I worked with some young women political leaders recently in north Africa who had learnt to counter force with force. They shouted louder and talked longer and faster than the men. The result? They were demeaned, attacked or ignored.
The breakthrough came when they learnt what it meant instead to be assertive. Based on knowing one’s purpose and believing in one’s rights, they learnt to be powerful without being a bully. It’s about taking space and is expressed in
our voice and our bodies, firmly, often quietly, sometimes through stillness and without fireworks.
2) To thrive we must listen to our bodies
To truly thrive we must come back to ourselves, our bodies. They aren’t some afterthought, to carry our heads around. Learning to hear and trust what our gut and heart tell us, learning to feel our ground, occupy space and bring this out in our voice are quick routes through to a deep inner strength. A key part of our work focuses on embodiment: simple yet immediately effective skills to ground ourselves in the moment.
3) To change the rules we need to believe in something
Purpose is the final key. To believe in something beyond the day-job provides vital steam power for changing the rules of the game. Shaping purpose focuses on four key questions: what do you love, what are you good at, who are your role models and what does your world need now. Defining purpose in this way is practical, promotes a sense of meaning and direction of travel it fires enthusiasm to lead change. Oh, and by the way, the outcome of all this is an exponential leap in women’s self-confidence.
Hetty Einzing is one of the Programme Directors for Taking the Lead – Women in Leadership short programme. The programme is designed for developing women leaders seeking to accelerate their career and personal development.
This article originally appeared in the Guardian.