Women make great leaders. We are good listeners, naturally perceptive, highly compassionate and wonderful bridge builders. Needless to say, women who reach the highest levels of power have proven themselves time and time again at being incredibly effective at influencing change and delivering results. However we also know that there are still far too few women sitting at the most senior decision making tables and that until there are more, not only will our organizations and institutions fail to benefit from the value women bring, but so too will the global web of communities they impact.
The growing awareness of the contribution women bring to the business in terms of their bottom-line and within the broader economy, has seen a shift in the focus by policy makers and industry leaders alike. This is good news for women. But on its own, it’s insufficient to ensure that women contribute their full quota of value and are valued fully for it. It must be coupled with a shift in female mindset; one that has far more women seeing themselves not only as deserving of equal power as men but as capable of handling the pressure & responsibility that comes with it without reneging on family commitments.
I recently had the honor of speaking at a women’s leadership summit in Shanghai. While there I met many talented women from around the globe. Smart women. Hard-working women. Women aspiring to do more, be more and lead more. Women who also sometimes doubt whether they can.
Of course self-doubt and fear of ‘not being enough’ is not limited to women in any particular geographic area, culture or age group. Not even to education or socio-economic status. While how much comes from our environment is open to debate, one thing I am sure of is that women tend to underestimate, second-guess and doubt themselves more than the men we share our lives with. This is not a criticism of men. Rather it’s an invitation to women to trust themselves more deeply that they are more capable than they think and every bit as worthy of influence, success and power as any man.
There are still many external hurdles we women have to scale to climb higher our careers, and contribute the full quota of gender diversity to the top level decisions. However I truly believe that the biggest hurdles we women face exist inside our own heads – our fears of failing, our aversion to risk and our tendency to underestimate our ability to handle it. Scaling these hurdles isn’t easy. It takes courage to question the beliefs that have guided our choices and limited our horizons, challenge the status quo in our world, and dare to become more not less. Below are seven acts of courage for women.
1. Lead from within
All leadership begins from within and extends outward. Likewise, no one will see you as a leader until you see yourself as one. Nor will people fully value your skill, expertise, time and potential, unless you do. The truth is that no one on this planet has the same combination of talent, skill, passion, and personal and professional experience as you do. That means, that there are things you can do that no one else can…. Not quite the same as you. Don’t sell yourself short by second-guessing the value you bring or doubting your ability to lead yourself and others to greater heights of success.
2. Unleash your ambition
We have to think bigger before we can be bigger. Too often though we set our sights too low, aiming only for what we think we have a good chance at achieving, rather than what really lights us up. Experience has shown me that we aspire toward ambitions where we have some innate talent to achieve. While unleashing your ambition (imagination and passion) from the fears that tether it can be daunting, it can also set you on a path toward whole new possibilities and opportunities you had never imagined.
3. Speak candidly (even if it rocks the boat)
Women are great at nurturing relationships but often loathe saying anything that might jeopardize them. However, when you withhold your opinion and tip-toe around sensitive issues, you limit your value. Don’t let your fear of rocking the boat; keep you from challenging the consensus thinking. Some boats are in desperate need of rocking.
Kathy Calvin, President and CEO of the United Nations Foundation said to me when I interviewed her for my latest book Stop Playing Safe, ‘ Whatever your career, you have to be willing to take risks, to speak up and to push back when you don’t agree with what others are thinking.’
You build influence, grow trust and add value one conversation at a time. Playing it safe in your conversations deprives you and everyone else of the full value you bring. So don’t let your desire to be liked, keep you from putting forth opinions that needs to be heard. When all you do is try to fit in, ‘people-please’ and keep the peace, you negate the difference your difference can make. As I say in the video below, “If there’s something you genuinely want to say, chances are someone genuinely needs to hear it.”
4. Advocate for yourself
Many people wrongly equate blowing their trumpet with conceit. It’s not. In today’s workplace, it’s crucial. While being a quiet achiever is admirable, if you think that working your tail off and collecting realms of gold stars is your ticket to advancing, you may well end up being left behind, burnt out and bitter. Sure doing a great job is vital, but if decision makers aren’t aware of what you’ve done, what you’re capable of doing, and what you’d really like to do in the future, then you may well miss out on opportunities that get laid at the feet of those who aren’t shy in promoting their value in the right way and time. So lay false humility aside. Advocating for yourself isn’t about proving superiority or stroking a needy ego; it’s about letting the people who can help you add more value, do just that. After all, the more people who know what you want, the more who can help you get it.
5. Make audacious requests (Yes, “Nice girls” do ask!)
People aren’t mind readers and expecting your boss (or your husband or business partner) to know what you want will prove both futile and frustrating. If there’s something you want, you’ve got to be willing to ask for it. While doing so doesn’t guarantee you will get it, not asking generally guarantees you won’t. Worst case scenario is that you’re no worse off than before you asked but at least now you know where things stand.
6. Refuse to tolerate the intolerable
Over the years many women have complained to me that they feel undervalued, overlooked, or undermined (and not just by men.) Most of the time when I’ve inquired what they’ve done to address the situation they confide that they have done nothing. But here’s the deal: if you want to be taken seriously, respected widely and valued fully, you have to be willing to stand up for yourself, teach people how you expect to be treated and refuse to cower to those who seek to intimidate you.
It’s a general rule of life that you get what you tolerate. Unfortunately though, many women tolerate behavior and circumstances that many men never would. If you tolerate someone over-stepping your boundaries, making snide remarks or over-looking you for opportunities, you can likely expect more of the same. While you may not have done anything to warrant such behavior, by not making a very clear stand for what you will, and will not tolerate, you become complicit in your own misery.
7. Lean towards risk
While researching Stop Playing Safe, Maria Eitel, CEO of Nike Foundation shared with me that, “ Coming from a position of fear, of not succeeding, losing your job or not being admired handicaps the potential of your career. I’ve never let fear of losing my job keep me from doing something I knew was the right thing to do.” Taking actions that put you at risk of failure, criticism, rejection, and even of losing your job, can be scary and emotionally uncomfortable. Yet, you cannot take on bigger challenges, grow your skills and confidence, or expand your leadership influence unless you’re willing to take such risks. And while losing your job may seem very dire, the courage it takes to put yourself in that position can actually earn you untold respect both within and outside your company.
We cannot achieve what we’re capable of doing by staying safe and cozy in the familiarity of our comfort zone. The common thread that binds all the highly accomplished and powerful women I’ve had the privilege of meeting over the years is their willingness to take risks, to speak up and to take action in the presence of doubt and uncertainty, rather than stick to a safer path.
The world is hungry for more women to own their power to affect change and step up to the leadership plate ; to dare to do more, be more and give more.
Only when we stop cowering to our fear and start owning the power that resides within each of us to affect change, can the millions of women currently living with little hope of education or opportunity ever exercise theirs. So you see, it’s not just our responsibility as women to become more courageous in how we live and lead; it’s our obligation.
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