We spoke with Sue Ashford, scholar and writer about female empowerment and leadership, whose book The Power of Flexing, has been making waves. Ashford presented her six main reasons why confident women are nonetheless reluctant to lead.
Ashford begins by explaining that the lack of desire to lead isn’t something exclusively female but is especially prevalent amongst women. Part of it is cultural conditioning, particularly deference to male authority, but there are ongoing causes to explore too.
Ashford says that it can be challenging to balance expressing strong views with remaining likeable and listening to others’ opinions. Being a “people pleaser” will make it challenging to lead. However, lacking any empathic ability to listen won’t make you a good leader either. Likeability shouldn’t be underrated, since people do tend to follow charismatic, likeable leaders.
What, then, are the main reasons why too often women can eschew leadership opportunities?
This is the mistaken notion that leadership requires official designation. Groups working together inevitably develop a leader, whether this if formally assigned or not, so women should be proactive in volunteering for this role. Organizations lose dynamism if this false assumption is maintained.
Another mistaken assumption is that leadership skills cannot be learned, that they are innate. As Ashford says, “if you believe that leadership ability is fixed […] then you’ll never try.” Without trying, you’ll never find out if you have capabilities which can be developed. Not every woman can be Michelle Obama, says Ashford, “but you can grow from where you are to being more leader-like.”
Fear of being unlikeable, as mentioned already, is a strong disincentive. People worry that wanting to lead will create conflict, or the risk of performing badly. Women can worry about being seen as a “know it all” or arrogant. “We all want to be held in some esteem by our colleagues,” says Ashford. “It’s just a basic human desire” which unfortunately acts as a major deterrent.
This is the complementary component to the belief that individuals can make a huge positive difference. Ashford calls this an “instrumental risk” – the fear of being blamed for a team failing.
Ashford agrees that there’s a tendency to believe that the day-to-day practical part of any job is more important than assuming strategic authority. As Ashford points out “the more you’re in your email, the less your subordinates see you as any kind of a transformational leader.” While there are always time constraints, simply “doing” can be a retreat to one’s comfort zone, and an avoidance of responsibility and risk.
Subordinates can also tend to hand small-scale problems back to a leader fixated on the “doing,” which perpetuates the problem. Leaders are actually depriving subordinates of their opportunity to learn by doing these challenging tasks.
According to Carol Dweck, you can either have a Learning Orientation or a Performance Prove Orientation. In the latter, which is the mode common at school, you believe your job is to prove yourselves capable of everything you undertake. This mindset will make you very risk adverse.
In the Learning Mindset, your goal is to improve.; it’s assumed you can always get better. This mindset is more conducive to taking on new challenges. Feedback actually becomes useful in such a context and is not a threat.
Becoming a leader has two components – claiming responsibility and having it granted back to you. Managers can encourage an individual to a position of leadership through a one-to-one conversation, but grants have more effect when they are publicly issued. The presence of others in the group helps legitimize the grant of leadership. Managers must be careful to spread responsibility to avoid jealousies forming.
Conflict can be seen as a search for the best idea, rather than a clash of personalities. It’s important to distinguish between task conflict and relational conflict, to promote the former, while mitigating the latter.
To give employees a taste of leadership, you can choose a less vital task and assign that to someone who may be reluctant to jump to more significant authority. Delegating in turn puts the delegator in a leadership role. If you always do a task, rather than let an underling struggle through it, you deprive another of the chance to grow and yourself of a leadership role. Ashford gives the example of a parent watching a small child struggle to tie their shoelace. If the parent jumped in, the lace would get tied much quicker, but the child would never learn.
You can develop strategies to cope with the frustration of waiting for a task to be completed, as well as the ability to tell when it is urgent enough that you must step in to help the team.
Competing with Male Rivals in Leadership
Ashford says, “you have to be in the game” – you have to be vocal and stand out. However, a woman’s contribution can stand out by being different – more empathic and affirmative, for instance. Sometimes you have to play by accepted rules, and other times, take a left field approach. Ashford talks about us being in a “post-heroic” era which calls for more feminine, less ruggedly individualistic qualities.
There is evidence that women are more skilled at problem-solving in a crisis, so there may be opportunities to shine in such a scenario. If you find yourself given a comparatively trivial task, by doing it really well then asking for more responsibility, you can overcome sexist assumptions of limited competence. Proactive CPD can also be a good way to demonstrate a desire to lead.
As well as taking on a smaller task to try a taste of leadership, choosing an issue you really care about can help a potential leader overcome risk adversity. The BLM leaders exemplified this tendency, for example, following the protests after the George Floyd murder.
Leaders need fair and truthful feedback. One technique for discerning it is observational, by learning the subtle cues that indicate approval or disapproval. Of course, you may misinterpret things. Directly requesting feedback has the problem of underlings being too generous and failing to offer criticism. Actively asking for negative feedback can help counter this, as can focusing questions on team improvement, and your part in that. Feedback can be shared with teams, so long as active change can be observed based on the feedback you agree with. Making it a regular part of team growth helps promote honest response.
Being reflective and open in sharing what you’ve learned can help teams appreciate your leadership, in a “post-heroic” world. Stopping to reflect on what your experiences have taught you will help you improve as a leader. Some tips for doing so can be found in “The Power of Flexing.”
Thinking about what you’ll leave behind, and what others will think, can help you become a leader with impact.