Profiles in Leadership | Why Does Leadership Embarrass Me?

Why does leadership embarrass me? Profiles in Leadership

As part of my new Profiles in Leadership Series, I asked several writers with different points of view on leadership to pen essays. Here is the first of those essays, written by the excellent Alison Battye, a UK-based therapist living in the Kent countryside. Ali normally writes about gardening and mindfulness on her blog The Mindful Gardener.  Recently, she accepted a leadership position for the first time in her career–a move that surprised even her. Why now? She explains.

April 22, 2019

If I had seen a series on leadership a couple of years ago, I’m not sure I would have read it.

Why? Because I didn’t see myself as a leader.

I have just started in a leadership role, so I must be a leader.

I am saying this quietly, in case anyone hears. I am a leader.

Where does this resistance to leadership come from? I know I have important ideas. I know that I can encourage others to share their ideas, including those who are most reticent. I know that I am good at coaching others. I know that I can inspire, and that what I say can be influential.

So why am I shy about describing myself as a leader?

Leadership Potential

I recently heard Nicole Kidman being interviewed on the radio. She was talking about how only girls and women are described as ‘bossy’, and that this word is always used pejoratively. She invited listeners to re-frame ‘bossiness’ as ‘shows leadership potential.’ She describes both of her daughters as ‘showing leadership potential.’

I have two daughters who show leadership potential. I, as a child, showed leadership potential.

If I describe my daughters’ bossiness in positive terms, I can see that bossiness associates with creativity, imagination, freedom of thought, inspiration, determination, ambition, drive. The first few of these traits are undisputedly positive. The last three, ‘determination, ambition, drive’, are more ambivalent terms. Why?

Am I uncomfortable with determination, ambition, drive?

I was a shy child. When unfamiliar adults spoke to me, I would hide beneath my mum’s skirts. My older sister would speak for me. ‘Her name’s Alison. She’s four.’

Most people who know me now would be surprised to hear that I am naturally shy. I am a speech and language therapist. I regularly engage in public speaking. I am not quiet at meetings. If there is a group task, I am generally the one to start things moving. I volunteer for projects.

I consciously became more confident when I trained to be a therapist. I did this by acting as though I were confident. When you act as though you are confident, you start doing all sorts of things. You offer your thoughts. You laugh out loud. You wear the clothes you like. You volunteer. You make brave decisions.

Soon you realise that you must be just a little bit confident, because you started that conversation, spoke up in class, went to that event, got that job, spoke at a conference, and so on. You believe in yourself.

When a leadership role came up at work, my instant reaction was to shy away from it. It took a colleague saying to me “you should go for this, because you have ambition and you have drive.”

Do I?

Of course I do. I always have. I needed to hear it out loud from someone else, and then I could own it.

I have ambition and I have drive! There! I said it.

Why are we afraid of Leadership?

In my family, in my friendship circles, in my professional life, in our culture, women are empathic. They are enabling. They are nurturing. They put others first.

I have been a slow-burn feminist. In my early twenties, I was a gentle feminist. I was a feminine feminist. I didn’t want to rock the boat, or upset anyone.

As I have gone through my thirties and forties, I realised that is a load of rubbish. If we are going to get things done, and change the world, then we need to be just a little bit stroppy. We need to challenge those cultural stereotypes.

We need to think of others, but we also need to think of ourselves. We need to put ourselves out there, and be brave.

We need to embrace all those traits associated with bossiness. We need creativity, imagination, freedom of thought, inspiration, determination, ambition, drive. All these things come naturally to us, we just need to embrace them.

Embracing Leadership

In my new leadership role, I will still be a therapist, because this is intimately tied up with my identity. I will still use my intuition to read the non-verbals in the room. I will still try to draw out the least confident person in the room. I will still want to find out what motivates a person to achieve their goals. I will still want to give others a voice.

I will also be proud of my achievements. I will not pretend that I was lucky to get this job, when the reality is that I put a lot of hard work in, over many years.

I will read everything I can get my hands on about being a leader, because I want to be a good leader.

I will fake confidence when I don’t feel it. I will make mistakes and I will try to own these mistakes, but not berate myself for making them. I will make decisions that not everyone will agree with. I will be brave, but not perfect. I will ask challenging questions. I will have high expectations, because I trust that everyone in my team will have high expectations.

I will value creativity, imagination, freedom of thought, inspiration, determination, ambition, drive.

Sounds like a leader to me.


Want to connect with Alison? Follow her blog or find her on Instagram

Author: Angela Noel

On a quest to become a better human, I write about parenting, leadership, and personal development. I tell my stories so you can find your own.

15 thoughts on “Profiles in Leadership | Why Does Leadership Embarrass Me?”

  1. I love the voice of this essay. I really enjoyed the writing.

    As often the least confident person in the room, I don’t want to be drawn out. I know when I’ve got the confidence to speak up, and I do so. When I don’t my brain shuts down and being drawn out will only make me feel like an idiot.

    There is a clear delineation between shyness and social anxiety. I work hard to “put myself out there” but I need to do it on my own terms. The times I shine most is when the topic is known to me before the discussion, and I can run through scenarios ahead of time. Often I can’t develop discussion points in real time because everything literally goes blank when I try.

    Thank you for this post. Thinking about this and writing my comment has helped me gain some additional insight into the problem.

    1. This is such a good point. From a leadership point of view recognizing the best way to get the best from people means exactly what you’re talking about–in my view at least. A person, like you in this case, must know what works for himself/herself. And a leader must be willing to ask the right questions and provide the information in a way that allows for maximum contribution. Not an easy ask, but an inclusive way to lead and get the best results.
      Thanks for reading, Ali’s essay.

    2. Thank you so much for your comment, A. This is really good to know. I will try to apply your insight in situations where I know someone will have a valuable contribution but where a meeting may not be the place to process the information and share it.

  2. Marcus Buckinghams newest book – Nine Lies of Leadership – Its making me think really hard about who I am as a leader vs who’ve I’ve been told to be. He describes being “spikey”. I need to embrace my inner “spikey” vs trying to be all things to all people. Your post reminds me of this. Thank you!

    1. Ooh. That intrigues me. I feel the pressure to be perfect all the time, so would welcome permission to be spikey sometimes! Though I am guessing at the meaning of spikey. In my family life my dad has been known to observe that I get ‘prickly’, but that is usually when I am arguing back, quite possibly making very valid points! Spikey sounds kind of zingy and vital too!

  3. I love the sound of Alison. I particularly love how she wants to use her leadership to give others a voice. She wants to make sure everyone has a platform and a chair at the table. This is SO important in leadership. We need more leaders like Alison. If we’re all thinking & contributing it will make for a more progressive team.

    1. That is a powerful message, and I agree we need more Alison’s in the world. It seems like a simple thing–to think and contribute–but for some reason it’s not always the norm. I’m glad you pointed that out.

    2. Thank you for this validating comment. I aspire to this kind of leadership. Having always worked in a female-dominated profession, I think that collaboration is all I have ever known. That is not to say that people never get shot down, but there is often a flurry of support around the table if someone’s idea is dismissed.

  4. Alison, thank you for this. You’ve shown that qualities of leadership come through our individual character. Leading without bullying is key to bringing out the best in others. “Leader” can be an intimidating title. Most of us are leaders in some ways in our interaction with others. We just don’t recognize it. Hopefully readers will realize their leadership potential and the value it brings to our society.
    Thank you, Angela, for posting Alison’s article.

    1. Yes–absolutely. We are all leaders in various ways. I also think you make a great point, only by seeing ourselves as leaders first, can we realize our potential. I think that’s why it’s important to see representations of female leadership in the media. When we see ourselves represented–whether it’s women, people of color, those with disabilities, or anyone facing barriers of “tradition” or culture that make it seem like we can’t do something–our imaginations ignite.

    2. Thank you Kathy! I think this is exactly it. Everyone can be a leader, and many do not realise that they have shown leadership qualities. We learn different things from different people, and there is no perfect leader.

  5. Aw, you remind me of my daughter! People at our church and her small school are so surprised to hear how shy Blondie is, but whenever we’re at the boys’ big public school, or out on the street, Blondie hides behind my arm and clams right on up while her brothers are all, “Who are you? I’m in kindergarten, I love helicopters do you love helicopters?” Etc. 🙂

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