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Women & Leadership: Resilience in Action

This week I watched a brilliant interview from the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership with Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Julia Gillard, whose book, Women and Leadership: Real Lives, Real Lessons, describes interviews with 8 women leaders from politics to see what they could learn from their experience. Twenty-four hours later, the book was in my hands and I haven’t been able to put it down since.

Their approach to the book was to use research to inform their interviews to look at how these women achieved their successes, and the barriers that they all encountered. Many of their insights highlight the importance of having confidence in ‘what I do’ and ‘who I am’ as a leader.

They reinforced the message that anyone can be a Resilient Leader: the women in this book are from hugely varied backgrounds; however, what they had in common was that their early experiences taught them that anyone can lead and nothing should hold them back.

Despite their vastly different contexts, in terms of countries, culture, roles and positions – the characteristics of resilient leadership they exhibited align with the empirical research underpinning the Resilient Leaders Elements (RLE™) approach to developing resilient leaders in any context. The RLE™ has identified twelve facets which consistently show up in effective, resilient leaders under the two headings of Who I Am and What I Do.

Who I Am

Have a strong sense of your own identify and awareness of your true self; knowing your strengths and weaknesses is vital as a leader. Additionally, these women leaders share the same anxieties, such as unpreparedness and fear of failure, as all women. This is normal. In fact, self-doubt is not a barrier to leadership, but a part of it.

Take pride in your cultural identity and that of others so difference is celebrated and appreciated. This includes men – don’t exclude them from difficult discussions or see them as ‘the problem’: men are not bystanders in women’s leadership. Build your network to include male advocates and mentors as well as women. Additionally, it’s important to understanding the environment in an organisation to achieve your goals. This is often referred to as the hidden culture – the way we do things around here: some will be transparent (policies and procedures) but much will be hidden. Use the environment to your advantage, but don’t feel you have to fit in or change to do this.

“Some of my colleagues actively felt that they had to behave like the men, to be in the smoking room of an evening, drinking with the men, that sort of thing. Treating it like a club. I didn’t. I’ve always treated it, I’d like to think, much more professionally, and therefore I feel I can do it my way rather than having to fit to a stereotype.” Theresa May

Have leadership presence; everyone knows what you would think and do in a given situation, even when you aren’t in the room. This is about being authentic: be true to yourself, your values and beliefs, and have a strong moral purpose.

“Don’t underestimate how much space you are entitled to in the world. Have the confidence to find your voice and be heard” Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

Allow your voice to be heard and remain focused and intentional even when others doubt or criticise you. This means that you trust your teams and colleagues; you know when to step back and let them take the lead. Because of this you are comfortable serving them; following rather than leading if that’s what’s needed.

What I Do

Having confidence in your vision and creating a strategy (strategic intent) that is effectively communicated (unifying purpose) is vital for a resilient leader; this Clarity of Direction is particularly important when women are confronted with the ‘glass cliff’, where they are elevated to positions of power when things are going poorly. Your determination will help you see through the mess of events and drive forward to achieve success. Further, having a clear purpose will help you serve others and lead through uncertainty.

“Always be prepared to back yourself in a crisis” Christine Lagarde

Bringing together these facets will enable Resilient Decision Making, ensuring you make great decisions at the right time, with the right people, and in the right place. Part of this requires being robust and versatile in your decision-making and using evidence to back your observations. Many of the women leaders in this book used these facets to call out bias in their professional lives; they used data to create ways to ‘level the playing field’ for emerging female leaders.

“I was the first female Minister for Health in Chile, and I was the first female Minister for Defence in Chile, and I was the first female president of Chile. This does not show that I am fantastic, but it does show how terrible Chile was that they never had women in these posts.” Michelle Bachelet

Finally, be creative and have a positive approach to risk-taking; even if the worst happens, there’s still tomorrow. You have the stamina and courage to face it.

Dr Amy Birch is a Resilient Leaders Consultant. Learn more about the coaching packages she offers with the RLDP™ here.



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