Instead of pushing girls to change themselves in order to fit our vision of leaders, perhaps we’d do better to change the way we define leadership. Girls today have to sift through outdated and confusing mixed messages about how to become a powerful leader. Women in the workforce face the unwinnable task of being both assertive and likeable. In her book The Likeability Trap, author Alicia Menendez notes that to rise through the ranks, women must come across as being firm and authoritative but still maintain a warm persona. Yet, assertive women quickly get labeled as difficult and hard to work with while warm, likeable women get judged as not tough enough. So, how can we prepare girls for this challenge?
This reminds me of another outmoded system we put kids through during childhood: the game of school. Kids learn quickly that school is all about following routines, obeying rules and pursuing superficial rewards. To be successful, students feign interest, only learn what will be included on tests, compete with classmates, put forth only as much effort as is necessary to meet adult’s expectations, and focus on grades and whatever will look good on college applications. All of this stifles most students’ love of learning and self motivation.
Alexander Den Heijer had it right when he said, “When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.” Instead of blaming students for a lack of motivation, blow up the educational system that is creating the problem. I believe a similar solution is necessary for the challenges girls and women face with leadership.
The system has always been rigged against women, so let’s focus on changing it instead of forcing them into an outdated model. Let’s start by redefining what strength and leadership look like. Being a strong, effective leader doesn’t have to follow the cookie-cutter definition we’ve been fed: assertive, commanding, authoritative and the loudest voice in the room. For girls, this can be standing up for themselves and others, not allowing words to bother them, setting clear firm boundaries, including everyone, handling conflicts directly, holding peers accountable and getting out of their comfort zone and taking risks. For adult women, it can look like being in charge of what success and having it all means for each individual, having a healthy balance of prototypical female and male leadership qualities, and accepting authenticity in all its forms. As Menendez states, “To fully empower women to lead, we have to stop asking women to reimagine themselves and instead, encourage everyone to reimagine leadership.”
Girls and women can work to develop qualities they lack that limit them, for example, having poor boundaries or not having the courage to ask for what they want. But that is different from requiring people to perform a leadership model that is not authentic to who they really are. What is required today is changing antiquated systems and affirming all of the different ways individuals exhibit strength and leadership.