I was recently asked to create a workshop around this topic, and as I began to do so, my first thoughts were…..Wow – that comes with a lot of loaded questions.Why would we distinguish being a woman leader from being a leader? Should we? Shouldn’t we? Should we tailor education and training opportunities for women leaders – or for all leaders? Who will be offended which way – if we do or if we don’t? Wading into these issues is a fundamental egg shell walk these days in any arena in which you say, “Yes!” to leadership.
So how shall we approach being an extraordinary woman leader in an era of polarization, #MeToo, and continuing pay inequity? When I look back at thirty years of senior leadership roles, I realize that it only fleetingly crossed my mind that gender was either an advantage or a disadvantage. My developmental years occurred in the era of equipping the “superwoman” – we could have it all – and I believed it! My career approach was to learn everything, take advantage of every opportunity, and to be over prepared for every interview and key meeting I had – not because I was a woman, but because I wanted the opportunity – and I definitely wanted to make a worthwhile contribution. In my experience, it didn’t matter who was in the room, from what country, profession, or position; if you had something of value to add, it garnered you respect. If you were smart in a critical moment, people listened.
Now, let’s be clear – have I had people talk over me, try to take my ideas as their own, make derogatory comments, engage inappropriately, or attempt to belittle or make me small? – absolutely – and it wasn’t gender specific. Did I allow it to continue – absolutely NOT. I learned a few things early – charm, graciousness, a smile, and being under-estimated are not bad things. As a petite female, it was easy to be over-looked and under-estimated. I never let that bother me. I allowed my bearing, my intellect, my preparation, my track record, and my expectations of others to be my guide.
For instance, if someone tried to talk over me or steal my idea, I let them finish – graciously, and with a smile, re-commanded the room by saying, “Thank you for validating my idea and further emphasizing the facts that make my recommendation an important consideration for our team/board/company, etc.” Claiming your voice, your ideas, and your power immediately is a key moment in defining you as a leader and corrects poor behavior, without calling anybody on the carpet….and yet, without letting it slide.
Note I mentioned my expectations of others, as well. I have found that clarity about who YOU are and what you expect of others is incredibly important in how others then behave around you. When most people learn who you are, your values, and your behavior is consistent with them; your very presence in the room alters the DNA of how they then engage. I’ve watched it happen over and over again. Men and women who comfortably use excessive foul language, for example – stop. People who would naturally snarl and be disrespectful to their peers, engage at a higher level, moving out of the sandbox and into 5thLevel Pinnacle Leadership, as John Maxwell would put it. You can quite literally, without ever doing a leadership training session or saying a word, alter the spirt in the room, and the behavior that subsequently follows, by modeling the behaviors you expect of others. This is true of both men and women, and yet provides a key learning for women to recognize that opening the space to civility is not only something quite extraordinary, but it’s an opportunity to change a dynamic that can then alter the results of every meeting and human encounter.
This all boils down to simple respect for another human being. When we witness the litany of poor behaviors that both men and women display professionally, we are at our most base level, watching one person choosing not to offer human dignity and respect to another human being. It doesn’t matter whether we are talking about race or gender or title, etc. How can a woman, or a man, lead without respect for those whom they lead and impact?
Giving respect to another human being requires first that we are full of self-respect. The foundation for self-respect is self-awareness – the most powerful tool in the arsenal of becoming the kind of leader who is a Transformation Architect™ – able to lead people to take on ideas and opportunities they never would have imagined possible and to quite literally transform the DNA and direction of companies, organizations, and the people who serve them.
Self-awareness is multi-faceted – recognizing our strengths and playing to them, acknowledging our weaknesses and minimizing them, being empathetic and a great listener, and knowing when to walk away. Self-respect for women in particular also means knowing our value, using our voice, and being compensated for our expertise, resulting in operating from a position of contagious confidence. There is nothing more de-valuing than to allow the abuse of permitting ourselves to be set up, year after year, to be financially deprived, and then, after a life’s work, to feel the full negative impact during retirement. Every day that we allow that to happen says to those around us that we don’t see, nor will we stand up for, our value.
Being an extraordinary woman leader means knowing yourself intimately and being a constant work in progress, displaying self-respect and extending respect and dignity to others, knowing your people and caring deeply about them, understanding the environment you are being asked to deploy your talent in, and being appropriately compensated for your value, so that you can become a Transformation Architect™ in your life, your family, your community, and your profession.