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Solace blog

8th March 2018

International Women’s Day: Reflecting on women’s leadership

International Women’s Day is always a good day to reflect on women’s leadership. On IWD 2018, coming amidst the heightened awareness of the continuing blight of sexual harassment and discrimination generated by #MeToo and #TimesUp, it feels particularly pertinent.

An excellent article by Deborah Cadman and Martin Reeves in the MJ recently discussed the demise of the ‘heroic’ model of leadership: in today’s complex world where leaders operate within systems not just single organisations, the command and control approach to leadership cannot succeed. They argue that so-called ‘softer’ skills are needed – like influencing, empathy, collaboration – if we are to succeed in exercising leadership with the whole range of organisations, partner agencies, and individuals necessary to make our places succeed.

There is still a danger faced by women in particular (although not solely) that these skills are dismissed as not just soft but too soft by those who have succeeded in the past through a more macho way of securing change or getting their way. Being collaborative can be characterised as ‘just giving in to what partners want’; showing empathy can be dismissed as ‘over-emotional’; seeking to influence rather than command can be criticised as ‘wasting time’ and not ‘cutting to the chase’. If you don’t project the traditional (male) ‘hero’ image, you can sometimes – as has happened to me – be advised to ‘act into your authority’.

I was reminded of these different views about leadership when I saw a meme that has been going around social media. It is a photo of a pack of wolves and purports to show that the old and sick wolves are at the front so that they set the pace and no wolf is left behind, with the leader at the back taking care of the whole pack. Great! I thought, what a lovely metaphor from nature. Unfortunately, it’s not true! The stronger wolves do go at the front, to break through the snow and create a path for others. As a side issue, however, in these packs, the leader can be male or female, and the fact checker article makes the point that the concept of the ‘alpha’ leader is not as value-laden for animals as it is for humans.

There are two things for women leaders to reflect on from all this, I think. One is that we shouldn’t look for someone else’s model of leadership to adopt – whether from wolves or other humans! The key is to be authentic and true to ourselves. We can use our own strengths, values, and innate skills and build on them as required.

The second, perhaps more important, is that different situations require different approaches to leadership.

Sometimes you need to be out front, breaking the snow and sharing a vision and direction. Sometimes you need to be aware of how it looks elsewhere in the system, to understand the situation from others’ point of view and see how well they are coping with the path you are all following. Sometimes you need to be brave and challenge the status quo. Sometimes you need to have patience and support others to strike out for themselves. The real leadership skill, perhaps, lies in understanding which approach is required when and exercising it effectively – possibly using several different approaches simultaneously.

Emotional intelligence, adaptability, multi-tasking: those sound like good women’s skills too. In that sense, I think the future could definitely be female. Happy International Women’s Day!

By Jessica Crowe, Assistant Director of Customers, Commissioning and Governance, London Borough of Sutton