Sara Sabin is a qualified accountant, former start-up founder of two start-ups, and a transformational leadership coach. Sara is a contributing writer to the Entrepreneur Magazine Leadership Network, and a regular contributor to the Fast Company. Sara loves to work with female leaders and entrepreneurs, who have a grand vision and want to make a big impact on the world around them, through their company. She helps them to build core leadership skills, fit for the future of work, and to tackle leadership and business challenges in an empathetic way. So that they become more influential, effective and profitable, ultimately increasing their own and their team’s business and bottom-line impact.
Women in Leadership
Some years ago, I was having a conversation with an ex-colleague. She works within the leadership team of the Finance Department of a public sector company. I posed the question, “do you consider yourself to be a leader?”
She had trouble answering yes to that question.
We had spent the past hour talking about her work life, where she told me stories that clearly demonstrated to me her leadership capacity. How she was prepared to speak out in meetings, when she felt something needed to be said and no-one wanted to say it. How she coached and supported her team. How she had struggled with near burnout herself and the empathy that it evoked in her.
Therein lies the problem. Women, who in all respects, are leaders are often afraid to call themselves leaders.
When you vocalise the words, “I am a leader”, you unleash your internal power. You make a strong statement. Vocalising is the first step to change.
So why do we have trouble calling ourselves leaders?
By the time we are 7 years old, most of our beliefs are formed, through our experiences at home or at school. Of course, beliefs can be changed but it takes constant vigilance, self-awareness and reflection and hard work to change those beliefs.
Girls, in general, when they are school are told to be ‘good’, not speak too loudly, or be pushy or arrogant. Often, when we’re complimented, we bat the compliment away. And we shy away from saying things that could be interpreted as arrogant. Girls are made to feel different from boys at a young age.
If we really want to change leadership faster, we must start early, with children. Change how we educate them and the explicit and implicit messages we send them.
Old definitions of leadership
In truth, if we take leadership at its core, what is it?
Is it a job title? The answer has to be no. If the answer was yes, anyone with a CXO job title, would know about ‘leadership’ just by virtue of their job title. In fact, in a study by Travis Bradberry of TalentSmart, they found that emotional intelligence levels tends to fall after Director level in an organization, with CEO’s having the lowest EQ.
Being technically excellent or an expert is not enough to lead well. Emotional intelligence is often the key ingredient in star performance, but it is missing in many of our leaders. Just because you have a certain job title, it does not mean you understand how to lead people.
I love this definition from Tony Robbins: “The true leadership definition is to influence, inspire and help others become their best selves, building their skills and achieving goals along the way. You don’t have to be a CEO, manager or even a team lead to be a leader.”
The definition you give to ‘leadership’ will determine whether you call yourself a leader or not. Define it for yourself.
Lack of role models
When we look at leaders of most corporates, what do we see?
More men than women.
And in my corporate experience, many of the women I did see in leadership positions used a very masculine style of leadership. I understand why that happened. Many might think that’s what it takes to succeed. We tend to model closely the people that we see around us. Even if it does not serve us (we will never be our best selves, whilst trying to be like someone else), or our team. Unfortunately, this can have the effect of putting off other female leaders, because they do not want to become like that to succeed.
For women that have true leadership qualities but cannot find a role model, in their environment, to truly aspire to; it takes enormous courage to go against the grain. This effectively raises the barriers to entry.
So how do you get more comfortable being a leader?
- Do a deep dive exercise so you can understand what beliefs you hold about yourself – from childhood, school and your experience of work. Really dig deep and question whether these beliefs are actually true and why you believe them. Find evidence of the contrary of your belief – for example, if you believe female leaders have to be like men to get ahead, look for evidence that this is not the case.
- Define leadership for yourself and ask yourself what leadership qualities you already possess, that prove your leadership ability. Know what areas you want to develop and make a conscious effort to do so.
- Search for female role models that you admire. Either that you know, or you know of.
- Write yourself a leadership mantra and put in place small action steps to hold you accountable to that aspiration e.g. I am a courageous leader, that helps others to be brave and challenge the status quo. A small action step might be speaking out in meetings when you don’t agree with something.
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