You are a leader – invent yourself

Judith Chapman
July 2016

A few days ago I attended the Women on Boards 10th Anniversary celebration in Sydney. As always at such events, the room was full of interesting and accomplished women – just the right people to hear keynote speaker Elizabeth Bryan AM. Her message? If women are to take their rightful place in the board rooms of Australia’s top companies, they must persist in their leadership ambitions and make their way to the C suite and beyond. Too many of us bail out early, or settle for directorships when we could aspire to the role of Chair.

From the nods and thoughtful silence that followed Elizabeth’s address, it seemed to me that her message was heard. 

Elizabeth didn’t dwell on the many hurdles that women face. I’m glad she didn’t – we all know what they are and I get depressed just thinking about them. Instead, she seemed to be telling us to find a way – just find a way, because a world without the leadership of women is impoverished. We simply have to do better.

How can women move forward in their careers with hope and optimism? I suggest we go straight to the heart of things and work on our own attitudes about ourselves. Learn to feel as though we belong – in line management, in the C suite, and at the helm of influential boards. Yes, learn, because it takes time and persistence to get free of the baggage that holds many women back.

I have coached and mentored numerous women, including many Wobbers, all with great talent and ambition. They always get there in the end but our early conversations are often peppered with misgivings and self-doubts. Am I leader-like enough? Do I have what it takes? Am I an imposter? 

Sadly, our society is awash with stereotypes of what the ‘natural’ leader looks like. He’s male, of course. We aren’t, so we think we don’t measure up. 

Women, stop buying into it! Take the advice of leadership guru, Warren Bennis, who cut through the dross with his simple but credible position. Leadership is a journey of self-discovery. Leaders invent themselves. The essential step is to build positive self-regard by working to bring out the best in oneself. 

Here are his three ways to get there:

  • Make your strengths effective and your weaknesses irrelevant. The best leaders identify the things they are good at and accentuate them.
  • Challenge yourself. Leaders are like good athletes, they nurture their strengths by setting stretch goals and getting feedback on progress.
  • Understand the fit between what your organisation requires and what you can contribute. Know how to apply your efforts to get the best outcomes.

This is great advice - a woman with positive self-regard is comfortable in her own skin, realistic about her strengths and limitations, able to stretch herself or take sensible risks, and comfortable with points of view that are different from her own. To inspire others we need to be self-affirming. Leaders who constantly doubt or mistrust themselves are in no position to inspire others.

Developing as a leader is both personal and unique. We shouldn’t try to become someone else or mimic a leader we have known and admired. We already have what it takes. Here is some of the advice I give my mentees to help them through their journey of self-discovery:

  • Understand that growing as a leader is a process of personal transformation.
  • Accept responsibility for your actions and the impact of your behaviour, intended or unintended, on others.
  • Capitalise on opportunities because we learn from experience. 
  • Remember that growth comes from reflecting on experience.
  • Seek feedback from others and accept it graciously.
  • Be aware of any negative self-talk that is sapping your confidence.
  • Don’t stay around people who are dragging your down or holding you back.

Be aware of the people around you who want you to succeed. No one expects you to do it alone so be ready to call on your network of supporters. Consider joining the WOB mentoring program. I have personally seen many women make great strides in this way - it will accelerate your development, too.