Women Leaders, Own Your Authority!

Women Leaders, Own Your Authority!

Women Leaders, Own Your Authority!

Leadership isn’t a one-size-fits-all cloak that we throw on over our clothing and – voilà! – we are perfectly effective leaders. It’s more like a custom-tailored outfit that we design, that shows the world who we are, or at least how we want to be seen.

When leaders show more authenticity (sometimes described as vulnerability), they build more trusting organizations and cultivate greater psychological safety. In theory, this should be easy for most leaders to demonstrate – but for some of us, showing our authentic, transparent leadership is easier said than done.

Are We Imposters?

So what stops us from leading from our highest and best use? For most of us, it’s our self-doubts and our self-talk (what we say inside our heads), learned over a lifetime, raising their volume from the occasional whisper to a veritable scream – "OMG! They’re going to find out that I’m not as [capable/skilled/confident/'fill-in-the-blank'] as I pretend to be!!!" According to organizational psychologist Michael Bloom, 70 to 80 percent of leaders experience the dreaded imposter syndrome, exacerbating any insecurity, doubt, and self-imposed limitations.

While every leader faces plenty of "internal roadblocks," it's a different situation entirely for women leaders. We face not only imposter syndrome, but also the gendered expectations, judgments, and double standards inherent to the "female experience".

Still, some of us are pushing back against the "imposter syndrome" narrative. Palo Alto University president Dr. Maureen O’Connor rejects the idea that imposter syndrome is the root cause of women leaders’ struggles, positing that the true root of the problem lies in the unrealistic expectations of others:

"I think people start to feel the so-called imposter syndrome because the people who set the [initial] path created standards that worked [for them, and] that may not be working for us anymore. And if you set yourself up against those standards, you are going to feel like an imposter. So I think the issue is who set the standards? Are they the right standards? And if they're not, how do we change them?"

Dr. O’Connor advises that women should NOT compare themselves to standards set in a different time with different conditions. Many experts agree that Dr. O’Connor’s observations are accurate –  separate from any personal doubt or feelings of inadequacy, there are significant systemic issues women leaders must overcome to not only own their authority, but to gain trust and credibility within their roles…

A Woman's Work is Never Done

For women leaders, the challenges of balancing professionalism, personality, and power are exponentially tougher. We face an unfortunate "double bind" in leadership roles: we must be likable, but not too likable, or we risk being seen as "soft" and lacking authority (dubbed the "warmth-competence line"). And we can be directive, but not too directive or we are "the b-word." Constantly walking this tightrope means that women who comfortably assert their power and lead authentically are always under stress, lest they be unfairly judged, making it more important than ever that women leaders are seen as able to effect action.

Even more insidious is what’s been called "second-generation gender bias," where women don’t realize they’re falling victim to this until it’s already happened. Despite organizations’ efforts to minimize gender-based discrimination, women must still face deeply ingrained societal ideals and expectations about gender roles. The Harvard Business Review credits this phenomenon with creating and perpetuating "a context – akin to ‘something in the water’ – in which women fail to thrive or reach their full potential." Because of this, the lack of connection, support, and confidence that women leaders face is normalized within many organizations (and among leaders as a whole).

Breaking Free (No Imposters Here!)

So what can we do?

Start with recognizing that, as a woman in leadership, you’re pushing against decades’ worth of mostly outdated (and often unexamined) expectations. In the words of Dr. O’Connor, "the standard is simply wrong… don't accept standards that were set by people who simply lived in a different reality than you live". We all have self-doubt at times, but knowing how to put those thoughts aside, and leading with authenticity and empathy will help you reinforce your self-confidence. And, bonus – it opens the door for you to mentor other women leaders forging their path.

Authentic Leaders Needed

Leadership regularly invites us to navigate complex challenges while staying true to our purpose, vision, and values. The responsibility of working to change these social paradigms can not lie solely with women; all male leaders are essential allies in dismantling biases and fostering an inclusive leadership culture. All leaders, male and female, must examine and de-fang past beliefs so we can develop future leaders who fully embrace their intrinsic power and are valued for doing so.

As leaders, we don’t focus on elevating ourselves and our leadership. We focus on those who look up to us, support us, will follow us, and lead side-by-side with us as we build a more collaborative and authentic leadership culture.