Do You Dare To Swim With The Sharks?

Many of you who know me, also know I’ve spent eleven years as a (board) member for PWN Netherlands.  As well, I work with two companies supporting diversity in the workplace, and supporting women in developing their careers. All three of these organization are voices for gender balanced leadership. And although this article isn’t about my usual focus on stress hardiness and resiliency, at its heart, it actually really is.

Recently, someone shared with me on LinkedIn, a Tedx Talk given by Alexis Kanda-Olmstead, who actually inspired this article.

Why is our stereotypical model of a successful leader a good looking, well-bodied Caucasian male, typically wearing a dark suit? Why is it that most people generally don’t recognize women as models of leadership? Is it because women are perceived as perhaps less intelligent, too emotional, too soft? Or if a female leader is demonstrating masculine traits, is she seen as pushy or aggressive? It comes down to what psychologists call ‘mind models’.

For many women, walking into a situation in which the stereotypical expectations are high, can be a fear-based moment. (I told you there is a link to stress!) There is an unspoken threat she is facing, which can trigger the stress flight, fight or freeze response. In the words of  Alexis, it causes “hypervigilance, second guessing ourselves, getting stuck in our minds and at worse, choking”.

What would it take for you to brave the next step, as a woman, to realize you too are a highly competent and successful leader, even though you aren’t yet the ‘model’ of what society thinks of in this role?

In research done with male and female university students, which Alexis quotes in her TEDx Talk, the discrepancies in their belief in their abilities to be a leader were large. None of them had any ‘real’ experience to draw these beliefs from and in fact, they were contradictory to what the research results demonstrated.

One of my great-nieces played a lot of sports in her youth. At age 13, her mom was watching her on the volleyball court, instructing her teammates regarding the next play. The thought occurred to her mom that her daughter might be bossy. She didn’t think, in that moment (though she does now): my daughter is assertive or has great leadership skills. As it turns out, my great-niece, at age 21, is the epitome of assertiveness, knows what she wants and has demonstrated her leadership skills countless times.

Years ago, I met a psychologist in the Hague, who was presenting on self-efficacy. This is defined as: ” one’s belief in one’s ability to succeed in specific situations or accomplish a task”. At the time, the term was new for me. She commented that even more than the glass ceiling, this was the greatest obstacle to women advancing in their careers. I was in my early 50’s and was just starting (yes, just starting) to develop a belief in myself, in my abilities and in my expertise. Her comment hit me hard! Much of this belief is achieved through nurture – it can be learned.

There is a term called ‘’: “It is a specific form of efficacy associated with the level of confidence in the knowledge, skills, and abilities associated with leading others.”

In the research I mentioned above from Alexis’s Tedx Talk, women bottomed out in leadership efficacy. They reported using the leadership skills they were questioned about much more than the men in the study but didn’t believe in themselves as leaders.

There is so much that all of us can do, to undo the stereotypical model of leaders. That’s a journey I’d like to invite you to make with us in the Female Leadership Journey starting in January 2021.

Dare to take the next step, to swim comfortably with the (metaphorical) sharks and learn that you won’t get eaten.