“I am a really good #2. I don’t want to be #1.”

“I really love the job I’m in and don’t want my boss’s job. It just seems too political.”

“I think I could do my boss’s job, but I don’t really want that much stress in my life right now.”

“My kids are young, I’m already working as hard as I can, I can’t really take on that stretch project.”

I’ve been doing a lot of speaking at conferences and connecting with women.  As women approach me with questions, I’m struck by the ambivalence I see in many (not all) to pursue the next big job.  I understand. I actually wrote about why so many women drop out of corporate America.  I was one of them.  For those who want to stay, I advise them to get clear (as hard as it is given the trade-offs) about work life priorities.  Make clear decisions about what’s important, what’s the difference you’re here to make, and stop being ambivalent.  Ambivalence keeps us stuck.  It zaps our energy. Here are the five mindsets I’ve observed that keep us stuck. Do any of these apply to you?

Five Mindsets that Make Us Ambivalent to Lead

1) Leadership is about exerting control over others and I don’t want to do that.  Women see legitimate power as “power to make an impact” rather than “power over a group of people”.  Yet, “command and control” type of leadership is often what we see displayed around us.  For many women, social acceptance (“being liked”, being part of a community) is much more important than for men, and if we perceive that leadership involves “exerting power over others” then we are reluctant to lead.  To be successful as leaders, we need to be able to make tough, sometimes unpopular, decisions.  We need to be able to reframe these decisions from “bossing people”, to making decisions necessary to make a difference that’s important to us.  Connecting to our leadership purpose (the difference we’re here to make) is especially important to develop the inner authority to make the tough calls.

2) Taking on a leadership role will add more stress to my life. Most of us lead pretty 24/7 lives and have the burden of the second shift as the primary caregivers for family.  Here are some ways to reframe this.  The data actually suggests that people at higher levels in organizations experience less stress than those at lower levels. Stress is caused by a feeling of “lack of control” over our circumstances, not the circumstances themselves.  Higher level positions can give us greater control and access to resources.  We can reframe leadership as an opportunity to bring people together to make a difference.  We can use our relationship building skills to tap into resources that weren’t there before.  If we are passionate about something, it actually energizes us rather than depletes us.

3) I need to improve myself before I can be a leader.  Fear of failure and lack of self-confidence are some of our biggest barriers. We often think we’re not worthy of leading because we’re missing important skill sets and need to have mastered them before we can lead. All leadership requires is the desire to make something better for ourselves and others.  The rest we learn along the way.

4) I need to lead like my boss to be effective.  Actually, we are most effective when we lead from who we are authentically rather than try to emulate others’ leadership styles.  This starts with greater self-awareness of who we are and the difference we want to make.  Developing a clear articulation of our authentic leadership brand allows us to be at our most effective.

5) I can make a bigger difference where I am than at the top.  Frankly, I am conflicted about this one.  I left a high level corporate role to start my company. I wanted to make a difference in an area that was important to me.  So it feels ironic to add this to the list.  Many of us choose to keep ourselves at lower levels in the hierarchy, convinced that we can make a bigger difference there.  If you’ve chosen to stay in an organization, ask yourself whether it is really true that people lower in the hierarchy have more power to make a difference than those at the top.

Data Confirms Our Ambivalent Mindsets

Research from 2011 from the Institute of Leadership and Management suggests that women are more ambivalent about careers. The European study indicated that:

  • 70% of males had high or very high levels of self-confidence, compared to 50% of the women.
  • Half the women admitted to feelings of self-doubt compared to 31% of men
  • 20% of men said they would apply for a role they weren’t fully qualified for, compared to 14% of women.

Our Future Leaders Have Similar Mindsets

Do you have a young girl you would like to be a confident leader? I do – my 14 year old daughter.

I was struck by research from the Girl Scouts about how only 39% of girls want to be leaders.  While 92% believe anyone can be a leader, only 21% believe they themselves have the qualities of a leader.  According to the research the biggest factor that drove a girl’s desire to lead is her confidence in her skills.  On the other hand, social acceptance (don’t want to speak in front of others, don’t want to be laughed at, don’t want to seem bossy, people might not like me), and fear of failure are some of the biggest detractors to a desire to lead.

The research shows that to re-engage girls in leadership, not only do we need to help them feel confident in themselves, we need to change the model of who a leader is.  Significantly more girls than boys believe that they would want to be the kind of leader who “stands up for their beliefs and values”, “who brings people together to get things done”, “who tries to change the world for the better”. We need new, more balanced, role models of leadership (among both men and women) that reflect a definition of leader who brings people together to affect positive change.

Our Collective Call To Action

If we want to prepare future generations to lead boldly, we need to be the role models our girls (and our boys) can look up to.  As a TEDxWomen organizer in Atlanta, I recently had the opportunity to have John Brock (CEO of Coca Cola Enterprises) talk about why he is a strong proponent of women in leadership positions.  In his TEDx speech he talked about how growing up, his mother was his leadership hero and it framed his view of why women made great leaders.

Let’s take a moment to think about what prevents us from seeing ourselves as a leader who deserves to make a big difference, and then find a way to reframe this. My view of this is, if we’re breathing (do a quick check here), we have a leader within us just bursting to get out.  So, let’s focus on the difference we are inspired to make, rather than all the barriers in the way.  It will give birth to the transformational leader inside each of us.

If this resonated for you, please comment, subscribe, and share with others.

Additional Information

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Showing 5 comments
  • Anne

    Thank you for this article. I can totally relate to your message for I am the youngest member in services team. I work with youth, where “chasing money is more important, parents not caring if you go to school or not and using your body and not your brain to attract boys” A year ago, I had this idea of “saving one youth at a time by providing them an extra support through mentoring and hearing what they’ve got to say.” From their opinion I’ve created a individual plan for each youth (i.e. child x needs to work on her speaking skills while child y needs to work on her silent listening skills). I remember bringing my ideas to my manager and to my other co-worker. Both gave me a blank face and laughed at me for they thought my idea were “stupid and not going to work.” I remember I was devastated when I’ve found out that they thought my ideas were garbage and did not gave me a very constructive feedback. I’ve meditated on their criticism and promised myself to not tell anyone my other ideas. A year later, my group and I finally saw the progress that I was hoping to see. The lesson that I’ve learn is majority of the time people will doubt and criticized you, especially the ones that you thought will have your back, but regardless of their opinion you need to believe and have faith in your own. My position will be considered as the bottom in our pyramid but regardless on how small the people that surrounds me view me as, I did believe that I will make a difference and I did. I trusted that a day will come and I will see the fruit of the seed that I’ve planted: the youth can see their self as a positive change to have a better and brighter future through pursuing a high education.

    • Henna

      Hi Anne –

      Thanks so much for sharing your story. You are a true inspiration to all of us. How? You had an idea about a difference you wanted to make. You pursued it even despite the barriers in the way, and you are making a positive change that is important to you. This is exactly what leadership is about. I am writing a book about authentic leadership and you are the kind of role model that women of all ages can look up to, to redefine what leadership is really about.

      Please keep sharing your story and that of others who are pursuing this kind of authentic leadership.


  • Reply

    You are so cool! I do not believe I have read through something
    like that before. So nice to find somebody with some original thoughts on
    this subject. Really.. many thanks for starting this up.

    This website is one thing that is needed on the internet, someone with a little originality!

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