No leadership story is the same, perhaps because it is rather unclear what success looks like in a leadership position. Despite this lack of clarity, we do tend to define leadership success in close conjunction with confidence, the strength that emanates from the leadership role itself.
The reality of the world is that not all leaders are authentically confident. Particularly among women assuming leadership positions. Data suggest that women in leadership roles, and often in general, have a tendency to underestimate both their capacities and performance compared to men on a number of objective criteria. Clair Shipman and Katty Kay write about this in their book ‘’Womanomics: Write your own rules of success’’. And this is the confidence gap that deserves attention.
The issue of female participation in leadership and availability of opportunities for career growth might not sit well with some women or men as it stirs sentiments around whether ‘’women exclusive’’ topics carry a label not wanted by some women. Even beyond that, it does call into question whether this is helping the status of women or not. It is clear that gender inequality is a systemic problem and not exclusively an issue of labeling things.
People generally dislike being put into categories, specifically in a workplace environment. And it might be irrelevant in some developed countries’ contexts, but still, on a global scale, we cannot proclaim that there exists gender equality in terms of economic and, particularly, leadership opportunities. So, this category has consequences for the growth and evolution of every organization. And it is important that we raise it and actively work on recognizing the potential in women that surround us in our professional context.
Illustration borrowed from The Atlantic
A good leader is a good leader regardless of gender
However, the confidence gap is a reality, and many women do not make it to leadership positions at all precisely because of the learned and assumed guilt attached to any trait of ambition in women. How do we close this gap?
First of all, let’s say a thing or two about confidence. For some reason, we see it as a character trait, an inborn part of the leadership arsenal. You either have it, or you don’t. Kelli Thompson has a very refreshing take on it. She writes about confidence as a side effect of taking action. Confidence is gained when we grab the opportunities to take action when we feel confused or doubtful. Gradually and over time, the feeling of trust in one’s abilities appears to us as confidence.
What happens most of the time to sustain the inequality between men and women in almost any industry, is precisely a lack of confidence for this first action – for taking this first step when beliefs in our abilities are shaky. This is where companies that wish to make a difference should, in fact, step in – by taking a systemic approach to recognizing any individual’s potential and creating structures tailored to growth with confidence in mind.
Leading with kindness
One of the things I learned over the years and through my various leadership positions is that leading with kindness gets you much further in cultivating these confidence levels than leading with fear. Unfortunately, many social contexts have been conditioned to believe that the only true leadership and strength in leadership positions is exercised through inducing fear. I do not subscribe to this as I believe such an approach may produce short-term results but systematically leaves the mark of inadequacy on team members.
I am proud to say that our Sarajevo office is made up of individuals who are dedicated to their work, their progress and supporting each other on that journey. When you have a flat organizational structure on your hands or at least an organization that does not support the hierarchical structure, then growth needs to be about depth.
We have worked hard together in our local leadership group to develop a system that acts as a guiding map of the growth territory for everyone on our team. Instead of promoting positions and roles which are not part of our inner structure, we are promoting growth through acquiring depth and width of knowledge, both technical and business. Combined together, this makes confidence building a journey of support and clarity amidst one’s own feelings of confusion and doubt. And in this, the whole team takes part – which is what makes me really proud of the efforts.
It is no longer about just having a seat at the table
Over the past almost four years, I have seen a lot of young women join us and bloom in their capacity to really show some excellent consultancy. We are proud that around 40% of our office is composed of young women engineers eager to change the definition of success for women – in the IT industry, it is no longer just about numbers. It is about the quality of participation.
It is no longer about having a seat at the table, it is about inventing a whole new table – together with everyone else on the team where we are judged based on the value we bring to the table. And I am thrilled to notice that most of them who have been with us for the past two years or so have grown to take on some strategic roles on projects – this perhaps would not have been possible had we not nurtured their sense of curiosity to prove more than what is usually assumed of the role.
But even with all this, my personal biggest challenge that remains active is the cultural expectation that power holds hands with arrogance. Power does not reside in what you can do as a result of your position but in what you choose to do for the greater good as a result of your vision. And this sometimes involves being very direct in setting the boundaries of collective success and individual freedom at work. And sometimes, it involves a lot of nurturing. Between fear and kindness, I will always go for the latter simply because it has the ability to encourage growth as opposed to fear that stifles it.
If you want to know more about this topic, check out these books and resources:
Samira joined Softhouse Balkans d.o.o. as Chief Operating Officer in June 2019. In her previous leadership and management roles, she has had extensive experience with team and organisational development. In Softhouse, she is dedicated to building structures that support organizational growth and scaling while putting people’s skills at the center of the development model.