Leadership is hard at the best of times. For women it can be even more difficult to strike the right balance between authority and approachability. We dont want to be seen as the bitch boss from hell, but equally its serving nobody if we play the part of a complete push over.
So heres a radical idea: just be yourself.
In my book Real Leaders For The Real World, I talk about how the very best leaders have ditched all preconceived ideas about what it means to lead. They are not acting, pretending or living up to anyone elses expectations of the role. They are absolutely at the helm, but are still authentically themselves.
Heres some simple steps you can take to reassess your leadership style and bring more of your real self to work:
Women are often told to be more assertive. And then when they are, the bossy label is flung at them. A classic Catch 22. The best way to be yourself is to be clear in your language. This sounds easier than it is. That’s because we have adopted verbal habits that we aren’t even consciously aware of. So the first step is to pay attention to what you say.
Remove the following words from your vocabulary as much as possible: but, just, perhaps, maybe, kind of, you know. They all prevent you from being clear. We often think we are ‘softening’ up a message by using these words. Actually we are just being vague and woolly and will be perceived as such.
Clarity is also key during difficult conversations. Rather than pointing out problems with a team member, say what you would like to happen instead. We can be perceived as negative if all we do is focus on what is wrong. It’s much clearer to say ‘What I’d like you to do is set up a system for tracking your progress’ rather than something vague like ‘You might want to avoid being so disorganised.
Be clear about when something is necessary and when there is choice. Use words like need, must, should and have to only when something is absolutely necessary and choose options including could, might and possible when there is choice. We often have a preference for either the shoulds or coulds regardless of context, which can unintentionally cause stress and confusion to those around us.
Women in particular often shy away from using direct language because they think it’s too harsh or not nice. Make sure your voice tonality is appropriate, for example that of curiosity rather than accusation if you are asking someone to take you through their work. Our tonality adds a whole extra layer of meaning to our words. Think about the difference between ‘I’m fine’ and ‘I’m FINE’! So make sure you are in the correct frame of mind and energy for what you are doing.
How do you hold yourself? Enter a room? Say hello to someone? Are you giving off the non-verbal messages you think you are? There are no rules here, just a heads up that your behaviour is communicating lots about you before you even open your mouth.
For example, if you run into work, out of breath and carrying 10 bags with stuff spilling out of them, people are going to make meaning from that. Do you make an effort to wear clothes that represent you or do you just sling on whatever comes out of the wardrobe first?
Do you run, walk or crawl along to meetings?
In life we often take short cuts because we are busy. We don’t often think that the person who may give you a promotion in five years time is watching you right now. Are you stepping into the identity of the person they want to recruit? Take some time to think about who you are and who you want to be and start to make a plan.
- Do your clothes and look represent you? If not how can you begin to move towards this? This is possible even when there is a dress code. The right colours and accessories really make a statement about who you are.
- Do you carry out behaviours that represent you? If not how can you begin to enter a room in a way that says ‘this is me’? It doesnt matter whether this is friendly, chatty and smiley or supremely focused and confident, as long as it’s the real you.
- Do you have conversations about things that represent you and interest you? If you want to talk about your kids’ bedtime antics at work, then do it! Just don’t get dragged into conversations that are other people’s agendas. Just because you have kids, people will ask you about them. If you don’t want to have this conversation, the give a short, but polite answer and move on. This is all about making sure people are getting as accurate a perception as possible about who you are.
If you are interested in the arts, politics or a particular cause, make sure people know about it – without ramming it down their throats of course. Then you are much more likely to attract work colleagues that share your interests and people will be able to easily answer the question ‘What’s she like?’ if someone asks them about you.
Be flexible, but not overly so. Women are generally very good at adapting to a context but this doesn’t always help with projecting who you really are and can cause you significant stress.
You can be flexible and still be yourself. Think about the different ‘hats’ you wear and consider how much you adapt to each situation. Is this what you want or have you fallen into bad habits? For example when out with a group of women from work and everyone is putting down their husbands, is that a conversation you really enjoy or do you just do it to fit in? If it doesn’t make you feel good, than think of a way of changing the subject or using humour to move the conversation on elsewhere.
If there is any context where you feel bad about your behaviour but seem to always get dragged in, go easy on yourself. Certain situations can be toxic. Just decide to do something that’s more you. Think about how you adapt your behaviour but not your identity to different circumstances. That way you can still be you and be flexible.
You don’t need to change everything at once. Pick something to start with and go with that. The key is that you authentically begin to say ‘this is me’ with your look, voice, behaviour and words. Take off the iron mask, I dare you, and let your real face start to shine through.