Posted on March 07, 2022

On empowering women, authentic leadership, and equality on IWD


Being comfortable with being different

I don’t usually make a thing about these various annual World Special Something or Other Day - I subscribe to the view that whatever the focus, it could or should be thought of in every day circumstances, not just highlighted once a year. But with some things, like International Women’s Day, I agree that it’s important as a way to raise awareness that inequality and discrimination still exist and what we can (all) do to continue to change that.

In Portugal, there’s the added complication that Mulher is their word for wife as well as woman, and being generous and obliging souls they like to offer congratulations (parabéns) and celebrate everything, so here International Women’s Day is a somewhat confused mix of Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day with a dash of chivalry and ribaldry thrown in for good measure, rather than necessarily being about furthering women’s independence and highlighting achievements.

Last week, I was asked if I might be available to give a talk for IWD to a group of women in a global insurance firm. The group had been formed specifically as a resource to help support the women in the organisation to network, learn new skills and develop their leadership ability and career progression within the company, and the brief was to give an empowering talk, but that would also be inclusive of men. Which is fine by me, because that’s also one of my bugbears, that feminism should not mean ignoring men’s contribution, but empowering us all, whatever our gender bias, to stand shoulder to shoulder, respectful of each other and what particular skills and strengths each of us can bring. To me, that’s what diversity is about, including everyone so that we can enjoy and benefit from our unique differences, treating everyone the same. Of course, the reason quotas and diversity guidelines exist is because there is still some catching up to do from the all white, all male enclaves that we are continuing to chip away at - the world I’m imagining is projecting ahead to Utopia still in much of the corporate world. But you have to imagine it, start to live it, for it to become reality, so let’s keep chipping away, and we’ll get there one day!

Picking olives for olive oil at Relaxscape

Empowering people to find their purpose

The other instructions I had were to remember to be corporate, and that despite being billed as a Change Coach, under no circumstances was I to mention that I had transformed my life (/work) from stressed city headhunter to happily empowered olive farmer and yoga teacher - I suppose that they were afraid that it might give their staff too many ideas of leaving and doing something similar themselves! I agreed, because the person who asked me is a friend, and I was doing what I could to help her out; it wasn’t about me. But it made me smile, because how I see it, empowering someone, anyone, woman, man, non binary, in the corporate world or not, is helping them to find their own particular strengths and the confidence to follow the path that is right for them. A happy company is one with happy employees, and employees are happy when they are doing something that they enjoy, something that they are good at, and something that feels right, rewarding for them - something that puts them in a state of flow.

From an employment point of view, that starts with the recruitment process, employing people whose values are aligned with that of the organisation. So in fact, a successful, well-performing, organisation, full of happy, empowered, well-performing employees, starts even from a step further back: from clearly defining and understanding what the organisational values are, what the company stands for, and by getting that message out in the right way, so that it attracts the right people for the organisation, who will feel aligned to the values and purpose and will want to stay to help make the company a success, not run off and be an olive farmer in rural Portugal. Then of course, it’s about retention, looking after your staff well, so that they feel part of the company’s journey and motivated to stay and work towards the joint purpose. Which I would imagine is why this Women’s Group in this particular organisation was formed in the first place.

Being your authentic self

This year the theme for International Women’s Day is “Women in Leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world”, so what I proposed to talk about was how to be an authentic leader - in other words, not being afraid to be yourself. Being a good leader does not mean you have to compromise who you are. In fact, when you are being yourself, fully authentic, is when you are performing at your best, and as a result are more motivated and engaged, and able to get the best out of those you work and interact with. By understanding your values, strengths, who you want to show up as each day - your “personal brand” as it were - you become more confident and you start to relax more and trust in yourself, that you are doing the right thing. And that’s when you tip over from just being a good leader, into being an authentic leader. Although things are gradually changing, in some big corporates, some women still feel under pressure to match themselves against the performance of their male colleagues, to feel that they have to try to be the same as them. But we are all different, and it’s by celebrating and accepting those differences, playing to our individual strengths, that we can achieve an equal future, one where we are all comfortable with who and how we are, and with each other.

One of the things that affects women’s confidence, is the feeling that they are out of their depth, because they are struggling to act out a role of who they think they should be, one that has been imposed on them, by society, since childhood. In other words, they are not allowing themselves (or think they are not allowed) to be their authentic selves. It’s known as imposter syndrome, and can affect men as well as women. In effect, whenever we put ourselves in a situation of unrealistic expectations about ourselves, or listen to our own negative self-talk, or to how others think we should be, rather than accepting ourselves for who we are, we start to doubt our own ability, and our self-confidence plummets.

When you are being yourself, and fully authentic, you don’t worry any more about comparing yourself to others. Any insecurities or self-doubts melt away. You don’t feel inferior, nor do you feel superior to anyone else. Everyone and everything is approached on equal merit, and from a place of non-judgement. You just know that you are doing the right thing, for you, for everyone. You’re fully aligned with your head, heart and self: your brain is not over-thinking or trying to find the logic in everything; you are doing what feels right from the heart, what’s important to you -you’re following your values. And because you’re going with what feels right for you, there is no stress. Because you’re not having to over-think things, because you’ve let go of fear/worry, you’re not in a place of anxiety, so you can be fully present - “in flow” - and give your all in every situation. This works wonders for your self-confidence, and as a result, for your leadership ability, since people are attracted to confident leaders who in turn encourage others to be themselves and play to their strengths.

Belinda on electric bike near Ferreira do Zêzere

Equality in 2022

Being a good leader who instils confidence is others is about understanding who you are, and how others are. It’s about accepting your differences, and that everyone is different, and then embracing those differences, making the most of them. That way everyone feels good about themselves, because they are allowed to be themselves, and since being in a state of positivity only produces more positive results, it’s hugely beneficial for any organisation that empowers employees to be themselves. So, to me, achieving a state of equality, doesn’t mean that we all have to be the same, but that we appreciate our differences instead, that we let go of judgements, about ourselves as well as others, about how we should be, and start to focus on and celebrate our strengths instead. Recognising that only with diversity, can we reach a place of authenticity, and that with authenticity comes equality.

So, here’s to women, men, and non-binary everywhere…on International Women’s Day let’s celebrate equality by celebrating our differences, for it’s that that makes us unique, that gives us our strength. Be proud of who you are, what you have already achieved, and keep on breaking down those barriers and preconceptions. Be you! Always!

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