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Margaret Heffernan

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What Chinese Food Taught Me About Women's Leadership

Posted: 08/05/11 12:14 PM ET

Some years ago, I was running a company that represented independent film and TV producers in the UK. Among other things, we negotiated agreements between producers and the unions that were critically important to the industry. The electricians' union was particularly tough and heading into that negotiation was never going to be fun. I was also new to my position and determined to make my mark. So when the head of the union invited me for lunch as a preliminary 'get to know you' I knew this would be no social event.

We met, at his suggestion, at a Soho Chinese restaurant and he proceeded to order all the most scary items on the menu: chicken's feet, ducks' tongues. Body parts. The challenge was clear: are you tough enough to eat these things? But he'd chosen the wrong girl. I'm a Texan who was brought up in the Netherlands where my mother had made it crystal clear that, in all circumstances, you eat what you're served, whether you like it or not. So I ate every mouthful.

I was very tough. When I moved to Massachusetts and ran software companies, I was proud when I overheard Silicon Valley executives exclaim over how tough I was to negotiate with. And for years I'd tell the story of the Chinese meal with pride. Don't, I implied, even try to intimidate me.

And then I had my daughter. And, reflecting on a plane one day, I imagined telling her the story of that Chinese meal. Suddenly it didn't seem so attractive. Was that really my legacy: that my daughter would grow up telling her friends, and maybe her children, just how tough her mother had been?

In a flash I saw my mistake: I'd been playing the union guy's game when I should have been playing my own. Instead of eating what he'd ordered, I'd have done better to ask for something different. Instead of trying to conform to masculine ideas of leadership, I should have stuck by my own. But I didn't have any.

Today, I think the hardest challenge women face at work -- and there are plenty -- is resisting the gravitational pull to assimilation. Most professional norms are male; it's easy to imagine that they are normal. But they're just historical hangovers that, like any old practices, need to be questioned and re-examined on a regular basis. Most business failure derives from clinging to orthodoxies long after they're rendered irrelevant. As relative newcomers to the business world, one of our greatest strengths is our capacity to question and re-write the rules that we didn't make and don't want to perpetuate. Assimilation isn't just dangerous for us; it's risky for business as a whole.

Much in my life, and almost everything in my leadership style, changed after I had that epiphany on the plane. I'm sure I'm not the first woman to have her life transformed by her daughter, but I very much hope I'm not the last.