Behavioral research indicates that women and men have equal ability to lead successfully. Organizations that thrive recognize that everyone has strengths to be tapped, and they recognize leaders by their drive, abilities and self-awareness. And yet, we’ve been socialized to believe that there’s something different about women leaders.
If you feel you’re being held back from being the greatest leader you can be because you’ve been identified as a “woman leader,” it may be that you’ve fallen for the idea that your gender limits your leadership capacity. With some noted exceptions, nothing could be further from the truth.
When you focus on the challenges you face, rather than what you’re capable of achieving, you miss the opportunities that are right in front of you. There’s a filter in your brain (for my fellow science geeks, it’s called the Reticular Activating System) that helps you find exactly what you’re looking for—even if it’s not useful. Once you find it, you have your “proof” that it’s true! Your experience is based on your mental filters—just like a friend who was sharing her excitement at finally “being given a seat at the table” and then leaving her first meeting feeling like she’d gotten “the shortest chair in the room.”
That’s a lesson I learned in 1975, when I was one of the first woman sailors put on Navy ships. I was 23 years old and simply looking for adventure. As luck would have it, my decision to defy the idea that I was limited to office work because of my gender led me directly to working under the San Diego sky onboard a submarine dry dock. During my three years there, I performed a variety of non-traditional tasks—including regular 24 to 48 hour shifts sandblasting and painting submarines. My luck showed up in the form of the most empowering leader for whom I have ever worked.
Chief Boatswain’s Mate Martin taught me that if I wanted to be successful at anything badly enough and was willing to suffer the inevitable indignities that result from pushing past your comfort zone into your own version of greatness, anything is possible. He proved it by enlisting in the Navy in 1966, where he was soon commanding “small boats” in the Mekong Delta during the Vietnam War. He rose quickly through the enlisted ranks, until he became chief in 1975.
Chief Martin challenged me as much as he believed in me. He held every one of us accountable to get the job done. The young men and women who worked for him would have followed him down a rope into Hades if he had asked us. (Heck, we would have gone down there alone at his request!) Every single day, simply by his actions, he taught those of us who were paying attention, what it took to inspire and empower others.
Ursula Burns is that kind of leader. She’s the first African American woman to lead a Fortune 500 company. She was 50 when she took the helm of Xerox in 2009. Her story is right out of Chief Martin’s playbook: after growing up in a tenement on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, she pursued her degree in engineering, joined Xerox as an engineering intern and stayed on for her entire stellar career. “I guarantee you will be the minority in the room,” she says. “And instead of that being a burden, it should be an opportunity for you, to distinguish yourself… all of us now are pioneers. Every one of us.”
It’s not 1975 anymore, and women are now better positioned to achieve more than ever before. The importance of developing self-awareness and believing in yourself as a leader has never changed. If you want to unlock your leadership strengths and skills, here are three simple shifts to get you started.
1. Take an Introspective Approach
These days my clients are business owners, business leaders and emerging leaders—all high achievers who are ready to make “simple shifts to forge ahead faster.” Part of our work together requires them to be introspective, to ask themselves, “What is moving me forward? What is holding me back? What do I believe or assume about myself? Based on what I’m observing around me, is that accurate? Is it helpful?” Their payoff is being able to discover what’s been invisible to them—which leads them directly to being able to accomplish what was previously “impossible.”
2. Find Someone to Help You Develop
No matter how far up the proverbial ladder you go, there is always room to grow. I encourage every leader to find that person—their Chief Martin—who believes in them. For many, that means finding a mentor from whom they can learn. For others, it means joining a peer group or “mastermind” group. The opportunities around in both of these kinds of groups for you to be the Chief Martin for someone else.
3. Keep Making New Mistakes
Finally, I remind the high achievers with whom I work that failure is the price of success. That’s how we all learn. When leaders have confidence in themselves, they learn to continually upgrade their unconscious operating systems so they can recognize and overcome any imagined limitations (like being a woman, being a certain age, etc.). It is truly amazing what can be achieved when you’re unafraid of failure.
My message to women leaders is this: you can turn stereotypes on their head today. Don’t wait for someone to tell you that you can—start by believing it yourself. You’re a leader who is also a woman. And there’s nothing holding you back from achieving whatever leadership role you choose.