Women in Leadership: how to shine not shrink as a female leader

For this blog, I spoke with Laura from the Vibrancy Hub about her conversations with women in leadership positions. In Laura’s own words, she works with “heart-centred leaders who are ready to make a difference and shake up the world of business. To help you to step into the fullest and most authentic expression of yourself and to support you to nurture the parts of you that have potentially been pushed aside – your intuition, your vulnerability, your courage, your purpose and your compassion.”

Having worked with Laura myself, and been on ‘the journey’, I can testify to her ability to bring out the authenticity and true expression in the leaders she works with. After a few months of coaching it struck me that the situation I was in mustn’t be uncommon. So we chatted about what Laura sees in the Vibrant community she works with.

Common ‘fears’ displayed by women in leadership roles

For clarity, when we’re discussing ‘fear’ in this context we’re speaking about “that” something stopping you from doing/saying what you really want, that makes you shrink in response instead of shine – the self-doubt stopping you from being your true, authentic self as a leader.

Laura shared with me how these fears manifest themselves in the women she works with in the corporate world. Some of the behaviours she sees are, women:

  • Scared to speak up within their organisations, to share their opinion or speak out on unfair behaviour
  • Making themselves smaller or diluting themselves to ‘fit in’ 
  • Scared to advocate for their needs in fear of coming across as too needy 
  • Abandoning parts of themselves or ‘wearing a mask’, hiding the truth of who they are

I often see women abandoning parts of themselves. Not showing up as their full emotional, imperfect, slightly wild selves – in order to fit into corporate cultures.

Laura – The Vibrancy Hub

When I think about my career I can see how I would avoid leaning into my emotions or intuition in my 20s, choosing to manage in a matter of fact, sometimes aggressive way. In my 30s, as a new Mum, I felt a strange pull between who I was showing up as in the office and the person abandoned at the door. I didn’t notice (or did I choose to ignore?)  any signs of misalignment in my 20s – but in my 30s the voice was too loud and it led to self-doubt and imposter syndrome.

How does ‘the fear’ show up

Because women abandon parts of themselves and feel the need to wear a mask to work, this can lead them to a feeling of imposter syndrome or believing they are unworthy of the position they are in, Laura shares.

As a result, women lean into behaviours to protect us from feeling inferior or not good enough. “We are all desperately trying to prove our worth to our boss, our peers, our teams and ourselves” and this can lead to behaviours such as over-functioning, over-stretching ourselves and ultimately, stress, neglect and eventually burnout. 

Over-functioning in work looks like:

  • Doing things for others that they can do for themselves
  • Absorbing other people’s feelings
  • People-pleasing to avoid disappointing others
  • Difficulty saying no and setting boundaries
  • Assuming more responsibility than is your share
  • Giving advice whether the person asks for it or not
  • Fretting about others
  • Feeling responsible for others, or knowing what is best for them
  • Talking more than listening
  • Having goals for others that they don’t have for themselves

Belief systems that contribute to our fear of showing up

When discussing the belief systems that contribute to women abandoning parts of themselves Laura shares how our own assumptions can be projected as fear. What we believe about our own abilities can really show up when in leadership positions and block us from achieving great things.

Most interesting is how ‘collective belief systems’ can also stop us from being our most confident and authentic leaders. 

Belief systems can be broken down into three types, according to Dr Valerie Rein:

  • Individual Belief Systems – our individual belief systems are built up by our personal experiences, typically formed in our early years between the ages of 0-7. They are instilled by our parents, teachers, peers and community. 
  • Collective Belief Systems – these are the belief systems of the society we are brought up in, the structures and rules our culture follows. In the Western world, this includes the patriarchal society and the rules and behaviours built around this. Plus systemic beliefs built around race and differing cultures.
  • Intergenerational Belief Systems – is based on newer research around ‘epigenetics’, meaning that genes are changed based on traumatic events and those genes are then passed from generation to generation. This means that we can be carrying responses to trauma from our family lineage.

(for more information on these belief systems and patriarchy stress disorder check out Dr Valerie Reins book)

Who do you feel you have to be to climb the ladder or progress in your career?

Laura often asks her clients this question.

It’s important we recognise the collective belief systems our cultures and societies hold so we don’t internalise ‘the problem’. There may be individual beliefs holding us back in our role but when we look at modelled examples of success in our culture they are white, male, over 50. This has traditionally been all we have seen in leadership roles and so when we’re looking for examples that we can relate to we don’t see them. We look for how we should behave or who we should model and there is only one type of example we have to follow.

“The world around me told me there were specific people that knew the answers and mostly they were white men. They knew the answers and they were the ones to give you permission and they were the ones to give you validation…

…That is a deeply, deeply ingrained value system and belief system and one that I still feel like I’m weeding out of me. The need for white men to tell me the right way or tell me what’s right for me.”

America Ferrara, during an interview with Brene Brown on the Dare to Lead Podcast. 
I listened to the above podcast during the writing of this article, America Ferrera couldn’t have articulated any more perfectly the struggle we all hold with the patriarchal belief system. 

According to Laura, the collective belief system is why we see so many amazing women leaving the corporate world. “Everyone is buying into these messages of we have to get up at 5 am, force, push, discipline, be aggressive” – women in leadership roles, if they have children, no support with family care or it just doesn’t resonate, look at this and think “I can’t do this” or “I’m never going to be successful in business so I’m not going to try.” 

It’s not that we are broken – it’s the system. We are perfect. 

What strengths do female leaders hold?

When I asked Laura about the strengths she sees in female leaders she reframes the question for me; “I try to avoid talking about strengths as a female leader and always look at a person’s unique strength as a human.” – we are all so nuanced as people, it’s important that we understand each of us has a unique superpower that cannot be compared or categorised. 

We got into deep discussions around ‘yin and yang’ traits in business and how, typically, yang traits are often more widely celebrated in the corporate world. These include things like strategy, decision making, action, doing, assertion – all of these elements are important in business however not at the sacrifice of yin traits such as intuition, emotion, compassion, patience. 

(How we open ourselves up to both the yin and the yang as a leader is part of the conversation I found so interesting, so much so I’m going to write about this in a separate post.)

To lean into your unique gifts Laura asks you to consider your values and what’s important. She states; it’s essential you begin to question your strengths and how they contribute to your superpower as a leader. 

  • What are your strengths? (ask people around you for feedback here)
  • What is your relationship with your strengths?
  • How do you value them?
  • Do you value some over others?
  • What does your job look like?
  • What strengths do you exhibit in your job?
  • What strengths are you neglecting?

“You are going to be even better at your job if you’re utilising all of your superpowers”

Laura – Vibrancy Hub. 

The Round-Up

  • ‘Fear’ for women in leadership roles often shows up as:
    • Scared to speak up within their organisations, to share their opinion or speak out on unfair behaviour
    • Making themselves smaller or diluting themselves to ‘fit in’ 
    • Scared to advocate for their needs in fear of coming across as too needy 
    • Abandoning parts of themselves in or ‘wearing a mask’, hiding the truth of who they are
  • Women often abandon parts of themselves in corporate cultures, leading to feelings of imposter syndrome and believing they are unworthy of the position they’re in. ‘The real me isn’t showing up to this role, therefore I am not totally worthy of this success.’

This misalignment often leads to over-functioning, over-stretching and eventually burnout. 

  • There are different belief systems that can hold us back from stepping into our power. Individual, collective and intergenerational. It’s important we recognise how all belief systems play a part in the roles we play and how we show up as a leader. 

The collective belief system in Western society is patriarchal and means while some ‘blockers’ to our success are individual beliefs, there are huge external factors at play that we all must recognise. 

  • We all have unique strengths as a leader which amounts to our superpower. When considering what these are, ask for feedback from those around you, consider your personal values and then review your relationship with them and how you use them (or not) in your role as a leader. 

 No one else holds the vision for my life but me.

America Ferrara

Thank you to Laura from The Vibrancy Hub for taking the time out to speak to me on this incredibly important topic. Her passion for supporting amazing female leaders and cheerleading her clients shone throughout the conversation, I hope I’ve managed to convey some of that in this post.

Laura runs Radiant Leadership Immersion days, leadership training with a difference. Bringing together an intimate group of women from different organisations to pave the way for a new style of leadership.

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One response to “Women in Leadership: how to shine not shrink as a female leader”

  1. […] is such a difficult concept to not only grasp but to grapple with – going up against a whole collective belief system. But it has to start with us first, especially if that belief system doesn’t resonate with you […]

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