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To swim or drown in the quest of becoming a leader

Updated: Jun 3, 2023

‘We have now established so many equality initiatives to help our female employees become leaders and reach senior leadership positions, so what are they waiting for, why are they not going for it or succeeding?’

This quote from a frustrated CEO is no news, there are many of them and many organizations who are impatiently waiting to see the results of all the established diversity, equality, equity, and inclusive initiatives. It is a typical answer from leading figures in various organizations. We believe that it is time to begin to discuss the need for second wave gender equality initiatives that help women seeing leadership positions as attractive, creating safe spaces for leadership identity development, utilizing their strengths and leading with purpose and values. These kinds of initiatives will help female leaders succeed as authentic leaders who can create a sustainable and meaningful professional and private life.

It is not enough to create a new swimming lane in the name of equality and then expect the female employees to jump in and be able to swim and high five the wall upon completion of the lane. Navigating their own and others’ expectations and avoiding ‘Likeability Traps’, ‘Office Housework’ or drowning in burnout and sick leave. Becoming a leader is a fundamental identity shift that involves seeing oneself as a leader and being seen and acknowledged as a leader by others. This leadership journey is even more challenging for women. We don't believe in 'fixing' women. However, we believe in helping them navigate in structures that are making it more difficult for women to succeed as leaders, achieving their aspirations, and senior leadership positions.

When women are promoted to leadership positions, they must establish credibility in a culture that often is deeply conflicted about whether, when, and how they should exercise authority. We still see that women are inadvertently undermined in organizational mismatch between how women are seen, and the qualities and experiences people tend to associate with leaders. Women who are acting in a more collaborative way are not viewed as leaders, but women who do act assertively are often perceived as too aggressive. Furthermore, they are also more vulnerable for gossip and being measured harder because they often are the only woman and therefore noticed and measured harder than their male peers.

‘We must unfortunately admit that she does not have the leadership potential we thought she had. We see it repeatedly that when we promote women, they just don’t have the potential for this position – it is very disappointing.’

Another common quote from a CEO. We always argue that if a woman was promoted to a leadership position due to previous performance and her potential, then the potential to become a great leader is still there. The important questions to ask in this situation is: Why is she no longer a high performer with great potential? How have her leaders, mentor, sponsor, or organization supported her? What more can the organization begin to do to help her to become a successful leader? Do the organization provide opportunities for her to utilize her strengths? Who is supporting and coaching her? If a woman has potential, she will not lose it after her promotion. However, lack of support, coaching and validation of her leadership attempts diminishes self-confidence as well as the motivation to seek developmental opportunities and weakening her self-identity as a leader.

Every time a senior woman in leadership position fails, suffer from burnout - sick leave or resign it creates noise and harms the organization and its ambition of equal representation on all levels. When the junior women notice that a senior woman is struggling, they instantly think:

‘Do I want to be a leader here? Do this organization have a culture, policies and practices that will make it possible for me to be an authentic and successful leader here in a meaningful and sustainable way?’

It comes with an expensive price tag for every woman who fail. Therefore, organizations that want to achieve equal gender distribution must evaluate practices, structures and wordings that contribute to keep the old culture alive and kicking. Applauding and promoting leadership behaviors that are considered more common in men and confirm that most women are simply not cut out to be leaders. Challenging biases and behaviors and not only advocating or gravitating to people who are like oneself. Otherwise, it will lead to men’s advantage and status quo.

In Female Leadership we believe that it is crucial to help women establish a safe space where they can learn, develop, and unlearn leadership skills that will help them become intentional and owning their career. We witness how the women who are participating in our program ‘Becoming an Authentic Leader’ are feeling empowered to building a community where they can trust and support each other. We believe that facilitating a forum where the female leaders can develop individually in the aim to become an authentic leader is crucial.

‘After attending this course, I have realized I was too self-critical and didn't have much compassion towards myself. This is something I am going to unlearn going forward and focus on loving myself more and thinking about myself first.’

This quote from one of our participant’s emphasizing that being part of a safe group of women is a need. Women in a professional setting need to unlearn being competitive towards each other and learn to help, coach and listen instead. Offering women, a space where they can identify common experiences makes it possible to encourage them to emotionally support one another’s learning, talk and share, daring to be vulnerable, taking risk, openly committed to succeed or reach senior leadership position without being judged. In Female Leadership we have witnessed in practice that more women will succeed as leaders if they get the needed coaching and support, and this is the intention behind our program ‘Becoming an Authentic Leader’.

‘I was aware of the barriers and their existence but was not aware about the extent of those barriers. So, it was helpful to know and understand how much more work is required from each of us (women) to overcome those barriers.’

This quote from a participant emphasizing that the ‘Becoming an Authentic Leader’ program help the female leaders feel empowered to jump into the pool and navigate the challenges by being intentional and owning their career and life. High five each other and construct a new way of being leaders, define leadership and ultimately succeed. Being authentic leader who is purpose and value driven and is inspiring and rewarding for oneself, clients, organization, and people.

Our second-generation bias recommendations to organizations that want to help their female leaders succeed and reach equal gender representation on all levels:

1. Offer Internal and external coaching.

2. Establish mentor and sponsor programs (they are necessary but not sufficient on its own).

3. Invest in and offer a leadership program for female leaders like ‘Becoming an Authentic Leader’.

4. Help the female leaders create network and a safe space to establish the peer support that is important in the encouragement of aiming or transitions to new or senior roles.

5. Embrace their way of leading and encourage and appreciate their value and purpose driven leadership.

6. Establish a strength-based culture with focus on what energizes people. What are they good at instead of trying to be good at everything or fixating on weaknesses.

7. Facilitate a psychological safe culture.

Written by Charlotte Søndergaard


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