Women and leadership, the one question to ask

Women and leadership
From Rebecca Lakshmi’s website.

By Rebecca Lakshmi on her site.

If there is One Question you should start by Asking Women, it is This. And this question is the first step to more Women in Leadership in Indian businesses. 

Women in Leadership: that hot topic on which much is being said, written and done today. Many studies have identified the lack of adequate gender representation in business leadership. Literature on the topic varies from downright stereotype-casting to thought provoking and encouraging. Take for example, on the one hand, the article titled ‘5 Traits of Highly Successful Women’ which makes the following statement: the highly successful woman may have just one good friend, but you will ‘never find her walking arm in arm down the street’ with the girls. No explanation given! Take, on the other hand, Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’, which is based on her own professional experience gathered in leadership roles at various technology enterprises. Her book is encouraging and honest, and much of what Sheryl has written holds true for every ambitious woman trying to have it all.

In the insightful 2003 book ‘The Difference “difference” makes: Women and Leadership”, the author Deborah Rhode starts by stating that, “For most of recorded history, women were largely excluded from formal leadership positions. A comprehensive review of encyclopedia entries published just after the turn of the last century identified only about 850 eminent women, famous or infamous, throughout the preceding two thousand years. In rank order, they included queens, politicians, mothers, mistresses, wives, beauties, religious figures, and ‘women of tragic fate’. Few of these women had acquired leadership positions in their own right. Most exercised influence through relationships with men.” Twelve years on, the situation has dramatically changed across the world and the list has grown. Yes in India we still have prominent examples of women leaders who are wives, mothers and daughters – take for example Indira Gandhi, the daughter of Nehru or Sonia Gandhi, the wife of Rajiv Gandhi – but we now also have strong enough examples of self-made women leaders such as pharma entrepreneur Kiran Mazumder Shaw of Biocon, thought leaders such as Arundhati Roy and corporate leaders such as Chanda Kochar of ICICI. But the number of such leaders is still far and few between; we all know we’ve got a long way to go.

Today, to encourage more women towards leadership in business, there are an increasing number of leadership development programmes in corporates and there are an increasing number of independent leadership academies focusing on women. Schools and colleges are urging women to lead and tap into opportunities equally. But I believe that programmes and initiatives – internal or external – however good they are – as well as formal conversations on opportunities cannot be the beginning. These are the second or third steps. The first step is addressing the real problem at the individual level in a country like India : one that has been and is being addressed, but perhaps doesn’t get enough emphasis. This is a problem inside our homes, inside our heads. And this is not about the clothes we wear, the education we have, how good our English is, the balance in our bank accounts or the size of our homes.

So, what is the biggest challenge when it comes to seeing more Women in Leadership in India? Be it in a small business or a large enterprise, in the community or the state? The answer…

It is THE ATTITUDE that holds each of us women back from considering leadership in the first place. The attitude within every woman TOWARDS HER OWN SELF AND HER OWN ABILITIES.

Yes, first the attitude in every woman towards herself, then the attitude in every man towards women, and then the attitude of women towards each other… in that order.

Yes, the challenge is at the individual and contextual level. Let me trying explaining giving my own example.

Our context in India plays a big role in how we women in India look at ourselves and what limitations we have set for ourselves. Had I been raised being told even as a child that I could be anything I wanted to when I grew up, that I could dream as wildly and beautifully as my soul allowed me to, and that I could go on to try and realize my dream with the full support of my family and community: I probably would have been a filmmaker at 22, an author at 26 and would have travelled the world by now too. Or at least I would have tried and gotten somewhere or here sooner.

Today, I am a Youtube talk show host, filmmaker, anchor, blogger and speaker. I am a digital brand in the making. I lead a small team and I have bigger dreams than I ever had before. But once upon a time, I was just a social worker or a social researcher or an academic or a model. One thing at a time, busy in fulfilling small roles, living with the limitations I had set upon myself. I just didn’t think I had in me to lead, to create something amazing and bigger than me from scratch or to dream of things I did know much about but wished to achieve.

So, when did I start thinking beyond small professional dreams that would work well alongside marriage and kids? When I was 32 or 33. Yes, it took that long. And I’m the girl who rode a motorbike at 19 and backpacked abroad at 24. Why did it take me this long? What was stopping me? I had to shed my context, which told me that I had to be ‘enough’. ‘Enough’ was defined as college professor, wife, mom and daughter. Nothing more, that was enough. I had to balance it all and ‘enough’ was the handed-down-reason behind ‘happy’.

At 32, already having put behind me an unsuccessful marriage, and having had traversed an adventurous career path: it was time to embrace myself fully. To embrace who I really was and am: the creative soul who enjoys self-expression, the marketer who loves coming up with great content ideas and making films, the person who wants to constantly connect with people everywhere on good things, the traveller who wants to taste every culture in the world, the girl who wants to have enough time to read and write books, and the woman who wants a comforting home to return to after a long day’s work. I realized I wanted enough memories, adventures and stories to share in retirement, and a focus on one really big goal until then: to consciously and fearlessly contribute to making my country a better place. And in my new mental avatar: my dream is being a medium of good stories (which I am already realizing), and working towards a more ambitious goal of delivering change: whether it is through more and more, and better-told stories of good change or also as a political leader who can impact large-scale change. The journey, my dear friend, to my leadership in my world, has just begun. And in this journey, I’m not taking my fears along. I’m letting my dreams guide me. And I want to get better, and better and better at how well I make my dreams come true.

o that’s my personal journey towards leadership as an Indian woman. And in your life, in your team, and in your organization, if you were to start with one question when it comes to encouraging women towards leadership, there is I believe just one question to begin with…

“If you could dream fearlessly, what would you dream of doing?” Ask every woman this: your daughter, your sister, your mother, your lover, your partner, your teacher, your colleague, your boss, your friend and your subordinate.

And now, a message especially for every Woman reading this…

A couple of years ago, I wrote about dreaming without boundaries and that a new definition of our own selves begins with the letting go of perceived personal boundaries. Today, I write this to you, the woman reading this: to dream of becoming a leader, to dream of leading – a project, a team, an organization, a community, a state or an entire nation – means to lead yourself into shedding your fears first and then questioning every boundary you have perceived for yourself. Then you have to be without a definition of yourself for a short while to really let yourself dream big… dream uninhibitedly without the bullying and scaring voices in your head that often mar the formation of that dream.

Once you have your dream: then you need to go do everything needed to make that dream a reality and to keep it that way. You need to:

  •   define your purpose audaciously and let your purpose define you in time
  • learn passionately about the industry or issue but don’t let that knowledge restrict your vision
  • seek opportunities to contribute and lead
  • persevere and work hard
  • work smart by picking your battles
  • work around other people’s shortcomings by keeping an eye on the larger picture
  • engage in continued learning needed for your growth
  • make new and enriching friendships
  • take people along on your journey
  • take on the responsibility of leading other people
  • find role models and advisors who will guide you at various points in your journey
  • relish the success that will come in many aspects
  • enjoy the money that will cushion your life
  • savor the happiness that will overflow
  • be grateful for all of the above and share the learning with others

Big Happy Dreaming Big because #EveryWomanIsALeader!

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Lakhsmi is a filmmaker and anchor. She has a online talk show, ‘Chai with Lakshmi’ has had over 30,00,000 views. The show features people positively shaping India for the future. Besides she has a second series on Youtube titled ‘India Ahead’, which is a short documentary series offering progressive Indians a platform to celebrate their efforts. Lakshmi is a self-confessed workaholic. When not at work or working at home, she is at the gym, watching movies and eating popcorn, playing boardgames over tea, sipping single malt whisky and catching up with friends, riding motorbikes or driving long-distance, having lazy dinner dates and sipping a fine glass of sauvignon blanc, or generally musing about the things she wants to do at work the next day. Lakshmi holds a postgraduate degree in International Marketing from Sheffield Business School, UK and a Diploma from the Chartered Institute of Marketing, UK. More of Lakshmi also to be found at: www.lakshmirebecca.com