A number of years ago, I made a professional decision that I wouldn’t shy away from difficult conversations. At the time I was working for a school system and I had witnessed too many serious problems that would not have escalated had the leader been prepared to face the brutal facts and take decisive action.
I was once involved in a mediation where a new principal at a school was addressing an unfair dismissal claim by a long-standing employee. There were many circumstances surrounding the decision and while potentially justified, it was enacted clumsily, due to the heightened emotional context. After listening to the situation, I shared my observation that the termination needed to happen, but the process could have been handled better. Once this was acknowledged and the principal issued an apology, the matter drew to a close.
Being in a position of authority doesn’t make the difficult conversations any easier. Leadership is often defined in terms of opposites – autocratic vs democratic, task-oriented vs people-oriented. Today’s leaders need to be holistic. In the uncertainty and shifting times of this century, we all need to be able to embrace this duality of leadership.
After I read Lean In, I found myself describing the book and sharing the ideas with my friends, yet discounting it as 'feminism’... until I got to the chapter that challenged me and the use of the F-word. Sandberg writes,
"Social gains are never handed out. They must be seized. Leaders of the women’s movement… spoke out loudly and bravely to demand the rights we now have. Their courage changed our culture and our laws to the benefit of us all."
Currently, only 24% of women in the United States say they consider themselves 'feminist.' Yet when offered a more specific definition of feminism – “a feminist is someone who believes in social, political and economic equality of the sexes” … the number rises to 65%.
So I’ve decide to embrace the word. ‘Fitting in’ as a female leader doesn’t involve pretending to be male. I need to be my authentic self, and this is the environment in which the people I lead will be able to flourish.
I am also resolute about embracing the both/and of leadership. This means that when I need to have the difficult conversation, I try to do it in such a way that means I stick to my message, yet the person is valued and (hopefully) feels her dignity remains intact.
I want to see a generation of women who can embrace the duality of leadership—with the right measure of feminist and feminine.