Last week I saw Julia Gillard speak at a fundraiser at Sydney Uni. The bar was packed with 300 fans waiting in anticipation of their hero. Julia took to the stage usually reserved for rock bands and sat on a large green leather seat at the front.
Labor Deputy Leader Tanya Plibersek made an introduction: ‘It gives me great pleasure to welcome former Prime Minister Julia Gillard –a transformative leader who reshaped our education system.’
Julia squirmed. As Plibersek’s accolades continued, Julia lent forward, hair falling over her glasses, and smiled awkwardly. Her discomfort was apparent.
Later that week, I had breakfast with a friend who sits on the board of a major Australian retailer. She was about to make a presentation to the staff on the future of digital shopping and was nervous. ‘I don’t like making definitive statements. My presentation is just my opinions; I might not be right. Who am I to tell people what the future will be like?’
This friend is one of the most intelligent people I know. She’s abundantly qualified to talk about the subject and leads the organization as a director.
Why does she feel unqualified? Why did Julia Gillard experience such difficulty in accepting praise for her achievements?
I found their reaction odd, but could relate to it. I also find it confronting to hear others talk about my success. I don’t feel I yet have the experience to be an authority. I assumed that this would change as I grew older and reached a greater level of success. It hasn’t.
And, watching these two women last week made me wonder: if they struggle to embrace their power and accomplishments, is there any hope for me?
This conundrum got me thinking about the broader topic of gender and leadership style. I often notice that women seem less sure of themselves in meetings than men do. Now that I work alongside a male co-founder, I notice the ways in which our leadership styles differ. I’m sure part is personality but I’m also pretty sure that part is related to gender and the way we are wired.
Until recently, business and politics have been male domains. We have a cultural perception of what qualities a strong leader might possess: charismatic, loud, self-assured and able to deliver quick decisions. A strong leader will make definitive statements and sound as if everything they say is fact: ‘This is what will happen if x, y and z.’ They’ll sit tall in meetings and will be happy to explain, even brag, about their accomplishments and qualifications.
The same dynamic exists in politics. As an avid viewer of Q&A, I note that some figures (often but not always men on the political right) state their opinions as fact and hammer points home. I suspect that, without the camera, they’d bang their fists on the table. Others grapple with both sides of an argument in a quiet, measured way before advocating a course of action. They may be advancing a more reasoned and considered opinion, but they sound less convincing.
My natural style is more like the second. I’m quiet, I don’t like to butt into conversations, and I’ll run though alternative solutions before making a decision. The further I climb in business, the more I recognize that elements of this style may hold me back. If I want people to listen to me, then I need to come across as confident.
Here is my approach to the conundrum:
1. Recognize what works
There are elements of my style that are powerful. Most stakeholders in a business would want a CEO who thinks things through. Being quiet and listening is an important skill.
2. Recognize what doesn’t work
I need to accept that I am an authority and own my achievements. I feel myself squirm even writing this. I’m weary of thinking ‘someday when I’m experienced and older I’ll be qualified to talk about that’. Someday is now.
3. Areas for improvement
Sitting quietly in meetings doesn’t work. I’m there to offer my ideas and opinions, and no one else will do this for me. As Madeline Albright famously observed in an interview, ‘Women need to learn to interrupt.’
In this article, I’ve described the two ends of the leadership style spectrum. One is more typically feminine and the other more typically masculine. Of course, these are broad generalizations and there are always exceptions to the rule.
I am working to find a middle ground that encompasses the best of both. There are many examples of Australian female leaders who I think have achieved this. I look to businesswomen Ann Sherry, Jillian Broadbent and Gail Kelly among others and Anna Bligh in the political arena seemed to embody a powerful mix of strength, authority, confidence, considered views and empathy.
In a room of faces in a boardroom, it’s easy to think ‘I wish I was more like him’. It’s good to identify areas for improvement, yet my most important challenge is to recognize my own strengths and become confident being myself.