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?
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.”
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.
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.