Sustaining and thriving in leadership are both interconnected concepts – especially for women managers.
Organisations should not only want more women in leadership roles, but help them to grow as leaders. Women are more likely to stay for the long haul when they succeed in leadership.
The research I completed over the past three years (as well as my work with women over more than a decade), highlights the need to tackle this in two key ways. Firstly, we need to look at how we can support women to develop their unique leadership identity – to know who they are as a leader. Secondly, we need to redefine what we mean by “leadership” and work hard to update our often old-fashioned assumptions of what leadership actually looks like.
Leadership Identity: Being is believing
In order for women to thrive in their leadership role (and men too for that matter), their ability to personally identify as a leader is crucial. Women who want to keep and grow their careers also need to continue to work on their leadership identity. Research shows that individuals who are unable to firmly ground leadership as an aspect of their self-identity (and who they are in the world) may be missing a critical requirement for leadership effectiveness. Researchers have also found that having a clear and consistent leadership identity is fundamental to career success. This shows up in a variety of ways – mainly in comments from women who don’t see themselves as a leader even when in a senior role (an under-developed leadership identity) as well as through women managers with a well-integrated sense of their leadership self who continue to work on that process throughout their careers.
So how can women develop or refine their leadership identity? There are four key enablers:
- Direct access to leadership experiences (and the ability to explicitly reflect on these, regardless of whether they were a success or a failure)
- Vicarious access to other women in leadership roles – a reinforcing the notion of role models, mentors and opportunities for women to witness the success and failures of other women in the leadership arena
- Social validation from peers, managers and external others of women managers as leaders – this external validation helps individuals to internalise a leader identity as a part of their inner self.
- Defining leadership on their own terms – helping women to identify the ways in which they lead and how their unique leadership approach is valid (even if it is at odds with the often dominant male expectations and style of leading).
Redefining Leadership style
Leadership is not only a personal process (based on an individual’s unique personal traits, characteristics and history) but a social process – which means the importance of organisational and social contexts must be considered. So leading organisations that are asking: “How do we create leadership environments where women leaders can thrive?” are on the right track.
Unfortunately, in many organisations the social and organisational context in which women aspire to leadership positions appears largely unsupportive of these aspirations. This can be attributed to outdated assumptions of women’s functions as “support” roles, stereotypes, or any one of the plethora of potential barriers. From a leadership perspective, data also suggests that the very definition of leadership remains based on traditionally male leadership behaviours. Indeed from a psychology perspective, leadership models up until the 1990s effectively excluded women.
Just as women have moved into the professions, the time seems ripe to redefine what leadership looks like. This requires us to suspend judgement on the small number of women who are in leadership roles (whether they have adopted male norms or not) and to look for the richness that leadership diversity generates, rather than continue to deride difference.
Every time we engage in dialogue which questions a woman’s claim to leadership, we undermine not only her sense of who she is as a leader but perhaps the very opportunity to create a new leadership paradigm – one that may be more inclusive and transformational for us all.