Over the past few weeks, I've had a couple of experiences that have left me thinking about just how often women downplay, deny and sometimes outright invalidate their own leadership. One experience stands out in particular.
During a recent engagement with a team of female business leaders, I had them reflect on their personal leadership and leadership styles. All of these women are senior leaders in their companies, and manage other people. Yet despite this, several of these women responded that they don't really see themselves as leaders and that my questions weren't applicable.
Say what now?
Women often tell me about the remarkable things that are happening in their lives and in their companies, how they're creating real opportunities for inclusion to thrive in their organizations and how lucky they are that these things are happening around them. Though the details of their successes may differ one thing remains consistent, a strong belief that their contribution wasn't a factor.
My response typically sounds something like this: "You've been working hard, thoughtfully applying your expertise, rallying teams behind your efforts. You are decisive and strategic, carefully cultivating the results you want. All of this is a demonstration of your leadership. Luck has nothing to do with it!"
What I see time and time again is that no matter how women leaders demonstrate their value, whether it be in the workplace, with our families or in our communities, we tend to diminish and undervalue our contributions. For me this begs the question, "Why do we, as women, so often refuse to acknowledge and value our own leadership?" There's no one reason for this, but here is my -- admittedly simplified -- explanation for how and why we got here.
From a young age we are taught how women are supposed to be, what is and isn't acceptable behavior and what it takes to fit in. I call this our "lady training." We learn that characteristics like modesty, like-ability and relate-ability are admirable. It just so happens that these same qualities are typically viewed (by women as much as men) as counter to those embodied by a leader. Therefore, when we step into leadership roles we threaten our culturally inspired and affirmed identity. To soften the blow and limit the exposure to this extremely uncomfortable experience we learn to diminish ourselves.
For example, several of us have learned (sometimes the hard way) that there's often a stigma attached to women who ask for what they want and overtly own their success. They are frequently perceived as too bossy, domineering, or a host of other, often more offensive, terms. As a result, it is all too common to see the women around us questioning themselves, their actions and what they could have done better instead of acknowledging or celebrating their accomplishments. The fact is, this phenomenon is endemic among female leaders and most don't even recognize it.
So what is the alternative?
My message to female leaders is this: Stop shying away from your leadership! Instead of shrugging off your acknowledgements, embrace and celebrate them. The next time you find yourself looking around for someone else to explain your team's success, consider that what you are doing is denying your own leadership. Despite what you may tell yourself if you are a leader and great things are happening around you are causing them to happen!
If you are ever going to be a great leader you will have to accept that you (Yes, you!) are capable of causing greatness.
So how do you do this?
As I mentioned, the challenge that most women leaders face is that they don't see themselves as a leader. They are unclear about, or have not embraced, their leadership identity. Here are three things any female leader can do to tap into and express their own authentic leadership identity:
1. Identify where others look to you for leadership: Where are you expected to lead? Where do others seek your vision of success or perspective on how to achieve it?
2. Make a list of three things that you value about yourself and your work and ask three people you respect to make a list of three things they value about you and your work.
3. Take a look at an achievement you're particularly proud of and acknowledge your contribution - take credit for your part in the results.
Finally, take a look around at the women in front, beside and behind you, and acknowledge them too. Point out for them the path to greatness that is coming into focus for you, and then lead the way. After all, that's what leaders do!