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We find ourselves at a paradoxical juncture: on the one hand, the world is teetering on the brink and trust in our leaders has reached an all-time low. On the other, we have an enormous pipeline of potential leaders who have what it takes to correct the course: they act with integrity, are resilient, achievement-oriented, bold and collaborative. Who are these exceptional people? Women.
Women outperform men in 17 of 19 core leadership capabilities, meaning that the most sustainable solution for the planet’s future could in fact be bringing more women into decision-making. Despite our leadership aptitude, however, and although women form nearly half of the workforce, we comprise fewer than one in five CEOs of ASX-listed companies, a figure that is repeated across geographies and sectors — including, crucially, government. How can we take our place at the leadership table if the places are all set for men — if we are invisible?
Visibility: being self-aware, being seen and heard by others, building authentic influence and engaging strategically for wider impact, is a significant and underestimated enabler of women’s leadership. Research has shown that visibility often eclipses all other criteria as the most important factor for women’s advancement. But visibility is not a straightforward proposition. For women everywhere, glass ceilings and broken rungs abound: embedded cultural misogyny, unconscious bias, the gender pay gap, the lack of affordable childcare… the list of structural barriers is long. And yet, ironically, we know and see in our programs and work with leaders and movement makers, that when women are supported with the will and skills to be visible, we become better equipped to tackle those structural barriers and bring our leadership gifts into play.
In 2015, fed up with the lack of women’s voices in leadership throughout our careers in media, communications, corporate, nonprofit and government, we brought our visibility methodology, which combines self-awareness, strategic communications and collective impact-building, to Homeward Bound, a 10-year, global initiative supporting women with a background in STEMM into leadership. It was clear to us that not only is bringing more women into leadership critically needed, but supporting women in STEMM could help to solve some of the most intractable problems of our time.
Since then, some 350 women have been through the program; participants include a vice-presidential candidate from Costa Rica, the head of the Scottish Greens Party and a Nobel Prize winner.
Last week, Phoebe Barnard, from our first program, spearheaded the declaration by 11,000 scientists around the world that the climate emergency will cause “untold suffering”. Her peers in Homeward Bound have, or are on their way to having, change-making impacts in their respective families, workplaces and sectors. Many extraordinary female visionaries have also backed Homeward Bound, including climate change luminary Christiana Figueres, primatologist Jane Goodall and marine explorer Sylvia Earle.
On November 21 we will take our fourth cohort of women — 100 women from 33 countries — to Antarctica for the culmination of 12 months of life-changing learning across leadership and self-awareness, strategic capability and visibility. This voyage will be the largest ever all-women expedition to Antarctica.
On board the ship over three weeks, we will guide the women through an immersive program to develop the will and the skills to be more visible and effective leaders. Our role, as the co-founders of the visibility program, is to steer them through our three-pillared approach to visible leadership, developed in our work with leaders, organisations large and small, and movements.
Visibility to self
When we talk about visibility, most people assume the first step is to be seen and heard by others. Not the case, if you want to create lasting, purposeful visibility. In order to challenge the structural barriers and be authentically visible, we need to be self-aware first: to show up and be visible to ourselves. This means articulating our purpose, values and vision. We need to understand and reframe our self-talk — so when the opportunity arises to step into leadership, we don’t hear that shrill and frightening “I can’t! I can’t”, but a calm and knowing, “I can, I can.” The process of becoming visible to ourselves can take time and be the most challenging part of becoming a visible leader. But it’s also the most rewarding as we realise our true potential and power.
Visibility to others
This is where the rubber hits the road. Before stepping out to influence others, you need to be clear on your strategy. What’s your goal? What are the outcomes you’re seeking to achieve? Then, who is most important for you to engage with: is it just one key person, or a million people? Get your audience and their needs clear and the rest becomes easy, helping you to see where you need to focus your energy, attention and messaging. Is it one courageous conversation you need to work up to? Do you need to hone your writing skills, or give a creative presentation? By strategically and courageously stepping out, with your purpose, values and vision set clearly in your mind, activation and impact follows more easily than you might have thought possible.
Phoebe Barnard has exemplified this pillar this week. Collective visibility is when we use the visible leadership platform we’ve built for ourselves to support a cause, issue or movement bigger than ourselves. Any successful movement-maker you can think of uses collective visibility. Leonardo di Caprio. Greta Thunberg. Al Gore or Jane Goodall. This is where collaboration, generosity and elevating others creates momentum and collective impact.
You may not be able to come to Antarctica (this time, at least!), but you can take strategic steps into more visible leadership, starting today. And when we say leadership, we mean in any area of your life — leadership is a state of mind, not a job title. The world needs you.
Use the three pillars of visibility, and these three simple questions, to enhance your will and skills to be visible and step forward when called into leadership:
Visibility to self: What unhelpful self-talk can I reframe in this moment?
Visibility to others: What’s one simple outcome I can achieve by being courageously visible right now?
Collective visibility: How could I use my visibility to support others?
Visibility without value is vanity. So know your value and take the leap.