I recently ran across this blog post, entitled, “For Aspiring Female Leaders,” by Angela Maiers. In part, it’s another reaction to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. Maiers urges women aspiring to lead, in the spirit of the oft-quoted “Be the change you want to see in the world” (which it turns out Ghandi did NOT say – but I digress; if you want to read about that go here but please come back!), “Be the leader that you imagine yourself to be.”
In contrast to Sandberg’s book, which is filled with great advice on what to DO to get ahead in business, Maiers focuses on what we should BE if we aspire to leadership.
- Be a Learner.
- Be a Question Asker.
- Be Courageous.
- Be Kind.
- Be Patient & Persistent.
- Be Passionate.
- Be Hopeful.
- Be Humble.
- Be Empathetic.
As I read it, I couldn’t help but reflect on a former employee of mine, who I’ll call “Ambitious Annie.” Annie was bright and capable, very sharp at the ripe old age of 26. I never had to worry that Annie wouldn’t focus on her development or ask what she needed to do to get that next raise or promotion. She was always working multiple checklists – her project checklist, her home checklist, her life planning checklist and her career development checklist. She believed that she needed to move up to a more challenging position every two years, and wanted to make sure she knew what she needed to do to make that happen. The main thing she really needed to do was to focus a little less on what to DO and a little more on just BEing a leader.
My interpretation of Maiers’ post is that leaders don’t just master their checklists; they embody these qualities in the way they show up in life (both at work and elsewhere) every day. All day you are making choices about who to be. Are you the person who gives the dog a little love before heading out the door, smiles at the bus driver, says “Good morning,” and “Thank you,” to the kid who made your latte, and asks your co-worker if her mom is feeling better? Do you find a few interesting tidbits in that 3-hour seminar everyone else sleeps through, and make notes on how to apply what you learned? Do you raise your hand and ask to lead that “skunkworks” project, or hope they don’t choose you, making snarky comments to your teammates about “Here we go again!”?
I don’t claim to have been Little Miss Sunshine every day in my career (I am truly enjoying the vision in my head of several readers spitting out their coffee). Some days it’s hard. Some bosses make it hard. Some cultures make it nearly impossible to maintain a positive attitude and don’t recognize real leadership. I firmly believe that real leaders choose not to stay in situations that don’t enable them to lead, at least not long term (sometimes we all make tradeoffs in the short term). When I say “enable them to lead,” I don’t just mean “don’t recognize them with promotions.” My even stronger belief is that you can lead from any level, any position. That kid who made your latte can lead every bit as much as the CEO of his company. At every level of my career there has been a peer I wanted to follow, to learn from, to BE like. I aspire to be the kind of leader others want to follow, to learn from, to be like.
That said, I have to say, it’s not that simple – especially for women. Too many women fall into the trap of assuming (or is it hoping?) that if they work hard and BE the leader they want to be, management will recognize and reward them. It doesn’t work that way. You really do have to BE AND DO. While being the best leader you can be, you will have to fight the “double bind,” you must take risks and “sit at the table.” You can’t do it yourself – you’re going to need mentors and sponsors and a supportive family.
One of the most common criticisms of Lean In I’ve heard is that not everyone wants to climb the ladder, and we shouldn’t denigrate women who don’t. Fair enough. I honestly felt that Sandberg went out of her way to reassure her readers that it’s NOT for everyone and that’s OK, but that we shouldn’t “lean back” too easily. I agree with her that we NEED more women leaders in business. It’s good for business and it’s good for the people that work there. Like Sandberg, I want to encourage women to lead because I know the world will be a better and more prosperous place if more of us do. Maiers’ post helps women who don’t necessarily want to be CEO someday to see how they can lead where they stand right now.
Note: Both Sandberg’s book and Maiers’ post are targeted at women, but these leadership principles apply to any gender. I would like to stress that I am not trying to achieve female-dominated leadership, but balanced leadership. I believe strongly that cultures where women and men share leadership and power are most effective and successful. For great resources on shared leadership between women and men, and tools to develop the leaders of the future, I encourage you to check out The Leadership Investment.