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  • Joan van den Brink

Man, I feel like a Woman!

Eleanor Roosevelt was the wife of President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and a stateswoman in her own right. She was a strong-minded and courageous leader who followed her her ‘True North’ [1] to campaign for and champion causes that transformed the lives of many disadvantaged Americans. Once her husband’s political career took off she blossomed as an independent thinker and became a strong advocate for social reform to better the lives of the underprivileged[2]. She revolutionized the role of First Lady by constantly acting in ways that were new to the position: holding regular press conferences, writing a daily newspaper column, publishing books and articles, travelling the nation on speaking tours, chairing national conferences in the White House, addressing national conventions of social reform organizations, giving a keynote address at her party's presidential convention, representing her nation abroad, travelling battlefields, and directing a government agency. She played a critical role in the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by skillfully creating an atmosphere that permitted the blending of ideas and norms of different cultures together into a document that nations around the globe could assent to while marshaling U.S. support for swift passage of the declaration. In short, she was an authentic leader.

The qualities of authentic leadership can be summed up as[3]:

  • Servanthood – A willingness to serve others – Eleanor Roosevelt campaigned tirelessly for social reforms including better living conditions for coal miners, relief for the unemployed, women’s rights and civil rights issues.

  • Responsiveness – Seeking and responding to diverse viewpoints; she held weekly press conferences and asked her readers to help her establish a “clearinghouse, a discussion room” for “particular problems which puzzle you or sadden you.”

  • Humility – Being humble, performing selfless acts that empower others rather than self-promotion and arrogance.

  • Honesty – Telling the truth; Eleanor Roosevelt was not afraid to challenge her husband, the President and others in the US administration when she felt their policies were wrong.

  • Transparency – Being genuine so that people do not have to second-guess what leaders really mean/intend.

  • Tenacity – Standing strong through the storms of life "I'll just have to go on being myself, as much as I can. I'm just not the sort of person who would be any good at [any] job. I dare say I shall be criticized, whatever I do”.

  • Visionary – Able to make connections that others miss and inspire others around their dream.

  • Trustworthiness – People feel confident that the leader has good intentions towards them and will act on those intentions; they will keep their promises.

  • Innovation – Finding new ways to do things. Doing things better than they’ve been previously done.

  • Empathy and Compassion – Understanding others’ underlying emotions and treating all, including themselves, with kindness.

Many of these qualities come naturally to women. However, in their rise to the top of their organisations, women face many challenges. Whilst many senior managers espouse the virtues listed above, their actions are often incongruent with their words, chasing short-term results and the trappings of personal success. To succeed women often struggle to be themselves – feminine – as by doing so they are seen as too soft and not leadership material. However, if they emulate their male counterparts, they are often seen as aggressive and overbearing. Sheryl Sandberg has done a lot of research on this phenomenon[4], “I have read every study, I have pored over the materials, and the lessons are very clear…what we know is that stereotypes are holding women back from leadership roles all over the world. It's so striking…All over the world, no matter what our cultures are, we think men should be strong, assertive, aggressive, have voice; we think women should speak when spoken to, help others…all over the world, women are called "bossy." … It's a word that's pretty much not used for little boys, because if a little boy leads, there's no negative word for it, it's expected. But if a little girl leads, she's bossy.”

The solution to this dilemma is for women to develop the courage to be faithful to what they truly value and understand how their competencies and passions intersect to allow them to pursue work that they sincerely enjoy. Becoming an authentic leader is not an easy task that you can accomplish overnight; it takes a lifetime of deepening your understanding of who you are and what you want to contribute to this world – what do you want your legacy to be? According to Bill George, authentic leadership stems from your life story and crucible moments that have a profound impact on how you operate. Authentic leaders are genuine in all aspects of their lives and act congruently with their values even when it is extremely hard to do so. They listen and trust their inner voice that acts as a compass, particularly in challenging times.

In her second TEDWomen talk Sheryl Sandberg talks about being scared to talk about women, “because I grew up in the business world, as I think so many of us did. You never talk about being a woman, because someone might notice that you're a woman, right? They might notice. Or worse, if you say "woman," people on the other end of the table think you're asking for special treatment, or complaining... I went through my entire business career, and never spoke about being a woman, never spoke about it publicly. But I also had noticed that it wasn't working. I came out of college over 20 years ago, and I thought that all of my peers were men and women, all the people above me were all men, but that would change, because your generation had done such an amazing job fighting for equality, equality was now ours for the taking. And it wasn't. Because year after year, I was one of fewer and fewer, and now, often the only woman in a room. And I talked to a bunch of people about, should I give a speech at TEDWomen about women, and they said, oh no, no. It will end your business career. You cannot be a serious business executive and speak about being a woman. You'll never be taken seriously again.”

Melinda Gates is an authentic leader who has found her calling in her philanthropic work as Co-Chairman of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. She is passionate about improving life for women and has made it her life’s work to give women a choice on when to have their families by working to provide access to contraception for 120 million women in the 8 years from 2012 to by 2020. This is both an audacious and courageous move given that Melinda Gates is a Catholic, and she has been widely criticised. Melinda Gates speaks eloquently about how she balances her faith with her belief in contraception[5], and, more importantly, responding to the voices of African women who have told her repeatedly that they need the contraception to be able to plan their families, feed the children they have and be able to send them to school. She argues that access to contraception leads to more opportunities for girls by preventing unwanted pregnancies that allows girls to finish their studies, helping to break the cycle of poverty for their families and communities as a whole.

You do not need to wait until you are well into your career to develop your authentic leadership. For example, Malala Yousafzai at just 19 years old, yet she shows courage, compassion and humility in her role as a spokesperson for human rights, education and women’s rights[6]. In 2009, she began writing an anonymous blog for the BBC expressing her views on education and life under the threat of the Taliban taking over her valley. Malala and her father began to receive death threats for their outspoken views. When her father suggested they stop their campaigns for human rights, Malala replied, “How can we do that? You were the one who said that if we believe in something greater than our lives, then our voices will only multiply even if we are dead. We can’t disown our campaign!’ Malala survived an assassination attempt and feels only compassion for her attacker, “My only regret was that I hadn’t had a chance to speak to them before they shot me. Now they’d never hear what I had to say. I didn’t even think a single bad thought about the man who shot me – I had no thoughts of revenge Malala has shown true leadership that is strongly routed in her life story and experiences at a tender age and is following her True North despite the huge personal risks that she faces

We can all become authentic leaders who have a huge impact on the lives of those we touch both personally and through the work of the organisations and teams that we lead. Dapo Ajayi is senior executive in a global pharmaceutical company who has risen through the ranks of the organisation by sticking to her strong personal values of integrity, courage, strong leadership, people development and family. Her Nigerian roots have given her a strong work ethic and an appreciation of different cultures and perspectives. She leads with passion and energy that inspires her people and whilst driving transformations she is concerned to ensure that they have the capacity and capability to reach new heights.

What can you do to become an authentic leader and reap the benefits of living your life and leading others in a way that is true to you? Bill George[7] is the authority on authentic leadership. In his latest book, “Discover Your Truth North”[1], he states that to develop as an authentic leader you need to:

  1. Have self-awareness – know who you are and what you stand for

  2. Know your values, develop leadership principles from these and set ethical boundaries

  3. Recognise and operate within your sweet spot

  4. Cultivate a support team

  5. Live an integrated life – are authentic in all aspects of your life.

1. Self-awareness

To be self-aware comes from scrutiny and reflection to understand your life story and journey. What has made you who you are today? What are the crucible moments in your life and how has that impacted you and what you want to do and be? In addition to your introspection, you need to seek candid feedback from a range of people to gather new insights about how you “show up” in different contexts. The more you discern about yourself, the more you can behave in congruence with how you want to lead others.

2. Know your values

It is important to identify the values and principles that guide your leadership and are derived from your beliefs and convictions. This is more than just selecting values from a list but really considering what is important to you and how well you live up to the standards that you set yourself. Looking back over your life, have there been moments where you have stood up for something, challenged a decision that you thought was unethical and/or said no? Chances are that your values were kicking in at these moments. Take some time to unpick these situations to get to the core of what was really going on for you and so reveal your deep-seated values. Then consider how well you are living your life and performing at work against these. What, if any, changes do you want to make to live and lead more genuinely?

3. Sweet spot

Your sweet spot is that area in which you operate at your best because you are highly motivated and energized, feel confident that you have the abilities to succeed and achieve excellence. Finding your sweet spot requires knowledge of your strengths (and limitations) and tuning into what makes you special combined with being cognizant of what you enjoy doing. Do you like: nurturing and developing young talent? Building things? Creating success out of nothing? Learning and applying knowledge? Spend some thinking about the times when you really felt in your zone – time flew, you were really productive/successful and felt a real ‘high’? What were you doing? What patterns can you see in these different situations? What does this tell you about the intersection of your motives and capabilities? Can you look for more opportunities that fit your sweet spot?

4. Cultivate a support team

It is important to have a group of people both within work and outside whom you trust and can be totally open with. These are the people who support you through good times and bad, offer wise counsel and wisdom when you need it and celebrate your successes with you. You can show your weaknesses and they will not judge you. And, of course, you provide the same support to them (and others). As a leader, you also need to reveal the ‘whole’ you i.e. share your vulnerabilities with your colleagues and not hide behind a façade of strength. You can do this through asking for advice, not pretending that you have all the answers and sharing personal stories. Sheryl Sandberg talked about the need to share her personal stories; “And I realized through the process [of writing her book] that I had to be more honest and more open, and I had to tell my stories. My stories of still not feeling as self-confident as I should, in many situations… And part of my journey, starting on this stage, going to "Lean In," going to the Foundation, is all about being more open and honest about those challenges, so that other women can be more open and honest, and all of us can work together towards real equality.” Her book inspired thousands of women to stand up for themselves and demand more equality and work and home. She started a foundation, “Lean In”, that enables people, to form circles, small groups to discuss the issues they are facing and take action to achieve equality. Now there are over 27,000 circles in 137 countries in the world and 85% of members credit their circle with a positive change in their lives. It is the power of peer support. Who do you turn to for support?

5. An Integrated Life

Authentic leaders ensure that their lives are not dominated by work to the exclusion of all else: they carve out personal time to spend with their families, take care of their physical and mental well-being and pursue interests outside of work. Of course, there are times when you need to put more intensity into work because of time-bound projects or priorities and this can mean that you spend long hours at work and away from your families and friends. However, if you persist in a punishing work schedule the chances are that you will not be able to sustain your productivity and/or will suffer from not spending enough time on other aspects of your life. So it is important that you put boundaries around what you are willing to do and those areas that are sacrosanct, for example, date night with your partner, yoga classes, meditation, reading for pleasure. Integrating all aspects of your life will not only help you feel more fulfilled but also enrich your leadership abilities.

In the end, it is about who you really want to be, not only as a leader but also as a person. Are you prepared to embrace your femininity and the unique style that you have to feel and lead like a woman?


  1. Bill George, “Discover Your True North”, 2015, John Wiley & Sons Inc., Hoboken, New Jersey

  2. Anna Eleanor Roosevelt -

  3. There are many opinions on what defines great leadership; I personally like this list from Ron Edmondson

  4. Sheryl Sandberg has given two TEDWomen talks, in 2010 and 2013. I reference the second talk here, in which she looks back on how she felt during that first talk and also talks about the reception she has received to her book, “Lean In”, her talk and her Foundation, also called “Lean In”.

  5. There are several articles about Melinda Gates’ philosophy on life and philanthropic activities. Here is a link to a TED interview that she did with her husband Bill Gates in 2014 that illustrates her passion.

  6. A short biography of Malala Yousafzai can be found here and she has also written her autobiography “I am Malala”

  7. You can learn more about Bill George here

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