I have led teams internationally and stateside, within small and large organizations, and in the safety of both the classroom and the jungle of life.
As a female, this meant saying “yes” to a narrow road, a road that traditional cultures attempt to restrict and boys clubs hang an invisible “no girls allowed” sign. In my years as both a theorist in the classroom and practitioner in the world, I have come to believe a simple truth about effective leadership.
Ultimately leadership is about influence and the unique influence of a woman must be experienced.
Women who have traveled this road know the challenges that lie ahead for those just beginning. There are times you will want to make a u-turn and question if the struggle is worth it. When these challenges came for me, there was not a woman ahead of me who could model or mentor me into effective female leadership. I felt like I was on a tightrope with no safety net and unable to see the platform symbolizing success within sight.
The women I did experience were either doormats or breaking down doors, neither of which fit who I wanted to be.
I saw women underutilizing their strengths or forcing them on others, both scenarios resulting in a loss of respect and opportunities. Movies, like Charlie’s Angels attempted to equalize women with men by showing that women could kick butt just like a man. The message appears to be equalizing, but there is a more subtle and disempowering message as well–that the innate strengths that females possess aren’t also valuable for “kicking butt.”
Strengths like collaboration (research supports the effectiveness of this leadership style), wisdom (the Bible personifies wisdom as a “she,”…just sayin!), and an ability to soften the rough edges of a cut throat world (see the story of how Abigail’s intelligence and diplomacy saved several men’s lives-I Samuel 25).
With an absence of mentors, what’s a girl to do if her strengths and call draw her towards platforms of influence?
Having led both men and women, there are some taxes I have paid through experience that I would like to spare you. I asked those I’ve had the privilege of leading for their insights. There are men who want you to pull up your chair to the leadership table. You are desperately needed.
In the meantime, here are three things you can do now to keep moving down the path.
1. Identify your God given gifts and believe they are there for a specific purpose. In the early days of my career, I did not have the knowledge of my strengths and had little experience to draw from. It has been said that your purpose is where your talents and burdens collide. I began to recognize my gifts in communication and a burden for developing leaders. Despite getting glimpses of my purpose, the opportunities extended to me at that time were scarce. I had to hold tight, believing that if God gave me these specific passions and strengths, He would not let them go to waste.
2. Prepare so when opportunity knocks, you can walk through the door. Develop your strengths and create value for others. Get your education. Seek out different experiences. Read everything you can get your hands on. Ask for feedback. Volunteer. Keep a learning journal. One of my most memorable opportunities came unexpectedly when my boss resigned and I took on a significant leadership role for a three year interim. I had completed my Masters in Leadership just one month prior. Preparation met opportunity. When given the opportunity, succeed early and often. When a leader is a good, gender fades into the background.
3. You were created female on purpose. Gifted people are leaving their positions every day because of poor leadership. Those possessing the competencies associated with Emotional Intelligence (such as building bonds, teamwork, collaboration, and interpersonal effectiveness) are what separate exceptional leaders. Many females tend to have some natural aptitudes towards these competencies, so there is no reason to think you have to forego female characteristics to be a successful leader. In fact, the research supports these competencies are largely lacking in leaders.
In Genesis 5:2 we are reminded that God created them male and female.
He was intentional in creating two genders with their own strengths. There is a place and purpose for both at the leadership table. And ladies, be mindful of being so caught up in your own story that you don’t notice another’s unfolding before you. Pull up a chair for them at the leadership table— a future female leader will thank you for it.