When your leadership examples are people who don’t look or feel like you, being a successful leader yourself can seem impossible. The way we perceive people in leadership positions influences which of us will feel confident enough to take on leadership roles. For instance, when I think about the successful leaders I often see in action, they are often assertive, extroverted, white men - very in control, very decisive. If I happen to be a woman who is strong in relationships, alignment, harmony, and teaching, I may think: Do I fit in? How can I be a successful leader if that is what leadership looks like? We internalize the ways that leaders look and behave and we think: I need to be like that to be a leader too - and I can’t. We discourage ourselves because it seems that we would have to change our entire personality and reject our authenticity to become that leader. Or worse yet: I tried to be that leader. I wasn’t being true to myself and it felt terrible.
This is why it’s so important for women, people of color, folks with unique backgrounds, and non-traditional personality types - anyone who doesn’t see others like themselves in leadership positions - to do the uncomfortable work of being themselves and embrace leadership roles. When different types of people authentically step into leadership positions, they provide more examples of diverse leadership for the next generation of leaders.
As a coach, I often invite my clients to look outside their immediate environment for other leaders - leaders like them, and leaders different from them. As we engage with these people, we open our minds to the diversity that is possible, and the different forms that successful leaders take. Sometimes we are surprised to discover that our industry actually has tremendous diversity of leaders, yet these are not the leaders speaking at conferences or taking public roles. Unsurprisingly, introverted leaders tend to keep a much lower profile. Ask for introductions to find these kinds of leaders, and keep following their networks to meet more and more of them.
The lesson here is three-fold:
1) Things are not always what they seem. Look below the surface to find others who have embraced their authentic selves and are successfully leading in their own way.
2) If you are a non-traditional leader or emerging leader, do the work to discover your own authentic leadership style. It will pay off in many ways, including more effectiveness, lower stress, and a greater sense of peace and integration.
3) If you are thinking of becoming a non-traditional leader, consider what impact you will have on others who are earlier in their careers. Can you be an example to others? Can you mentor those who have leadership potential?
The work to look at yourself, identify the impact you want to have, and build new skills to get there isn’t easy and it often isn’t quick. However, it is incredibly rewarding and can really make a difference in the world. Do this work on your own, or with a coach, depending on which works best for you.
When you can be really authentic and use your strengths rather than try to be someone else, you'll be a far more effective and inspiring leader - and it will be a lot easier and more comfortable for you. Being yourself across your entire life is an incredibly thrilling and rewarding experience.