What does leadership look like to you? Take a second to create an image in your mind. Who is leading? What are they doing? What are their characteristics?
Here’s the thing: Leadership looks like you. Just as you are, and in the position you are currently in. Yet many of us, especially women, may struggle to picture ourselves as leaders. We have fewer examples of women with leadership titles (in the United States, only about 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women; less than 20% of congress members are women; and exactly 0% of Presidents have been women). We are told that women should be more aggressive, take more risks, stop talking about feelings, and be more like men. That leaves us at risk of being perceived as cold and mean, or worse, to begin to feel inauthentic to ourselves.
Given the staggering realities about women in traditional leadership roles, women’s confidence can take a hit. Wiebke Bleidorn, researcher at UC-Davis, found that across the globe in 48 countries, women report lower self-esteem than men. Importantly, this seems particularly true in Western countries where women are comparing themselves to men. Though a lot of factors are at play, it seems that when women are measuring their esteem relative to other men, rather than relative to other women, their confidence suffers. On the flip side, European researchers Natalia Karelaia and Laura Guillén found that women who have positive perceptions of women feel more empowered to lead. Across several studies, women who reported a positive relationship with their gender identity also reported higher well-being and greater positivity about leading. Confidence is key to leadership, though it can be challenging to achieve.
As the director of a leadership program, I have seen many women (including myself) struggle to truly own our identities as leaders. It can feel like we don’t have what it takes. It can feel like we don’t have the opportunity for influential positions. It can feel scary. Leading can be intimidating for anyone, but reframing what great leadership looks like and what it means can make all the difference in letting yourself lead.
You already have the qualities you need to lead.
Women don’t need to be more like men. In fact, within workplace settings, qualities typically associated with women lead to more effective leadership styles. Work by leadership expert James McGregor Burns found that women are more likely to engage in a transformational leadership style than men. Transformational leadership, as opposed to what is known as transactional leadership, involves inspiring and supporting others to meet your vision. It includes building trusting relationships, communicating a strong mission, and providing encouragement to others. As its name suggests, this leadership style has the power to transform. And so do you.
You will be most effective leading others when you own the leadership qualities you already possess. Women tend to have greater communication and relational skills, which serve a transformational style of leadership. Whether those skills resonate with you or not, remember that successful leadership takes on a lot of different forms. The key to leading others is understanding and leveraging the key strengths that you bring. The polling and consulting organization Gallup has collected decades of data showing that building upon people’s strengths yields substantially better results than focusing on improving weaknesses. This means that no matter what your qualities or talents are, they will unlock your success as a leader. So embrace your empathy, your nerdiness, your ambition, your listening skills, your storytelling, your problem-solving, your eye for beauty, your humor, your organization skills, your introversion, your extroversion-- whatever makes you unique will make you a strong leader.
You don’t need a title to be a leader
CEO? Director? Manager? Whether you have or do not have these titles, you still have the opportunity to lead. Here’s what real leaders do: They empower others to bring about change. It’s that straightforward. Whether you are entry-level in your workplace, volunteering in your community, raising children, or leading a business team, you have the opportunity to flex your leadership and empower others.
The idea that leadership is tied to a position discourages women from viewing themselves as leaders, because for centuries we have not had access to these roles. But women have always been leaders. To me, leadership looks like Mother Theresa, Rosa Parks, Malala Yousafzai, Anne Frank. These women weren’t given a leadership title; they acted like leaders, owned their strengths, and empowered others to make change they wanted to see. You don’t even have to be a world-changing humanitarian to lead. One of my favorite leaders in history is Lucille Ball, who showed the world that humor and power can coexist with femininity. Most of my favorite leaders are the students I work with, who, as teenagers and young adults, think critically about their passions and commit to making a positive impact in their communities together.
When you change the way you view leadership, you change the way you view yourself as a leader. And when we embrace our own power to lead, the sky’s the limit.
About the Author
Annie Littrell Senior is an educator and coach focused on career and leadership development. She empowers young professionals to leverage their unique leadership potential, strengths, and personal narratives to build successful career strategies. Visit her website at findstrongpaths.com.
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