Like A Girl

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The price I paid for being a leader

The price I paid for being a leader as a woman

“In the military, people give medals to people that are willing to sacrifice themselves so that others may gain; in business, we give bonuses to people that are willing to sacrifice others so that we may gain.” — Simon Sinek

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

I truly believe in leadership as opposed to command. I believe in leading by example: you can’t ask from others an attitude or sacrifice you are not willing to make yourself. And honestly, when we are talking about our work environment, we all yearn for this, right?

We all fiercely advocate on how we need leaders, not bosses; inspiration, not commands. However, as companies grow and more people rise to leadership positions, the leader x boss conundrum is still an issue. The same employees that once complained about being bossed around boss people around.

I have, at some point in my career, been directly responsible for 8 simultaneous scrum teams. I have facilitated workshops with up to 150 people working together, towards a single goal. What I’ve learned from those experiences was that being a leader is more rewarding than being a boss. Trusting your team to make decisions and mistakes, and being there for them even when they are in the wrong, focusing on environment and culture more than on the individuals so each person feels welcome to share both joys and discomforts, being painfully transparent, taking the client’s criticism to protect the team regardless if they are right… All that will make your team flourish and bounce back as support for you. But it’s very, very hard.

And that’s extra hard if you are a woman.

I’ve always had male coworkers that share my passionate disposition. The difference is, when a male says

“this is completely off-limits, outrageous and unethical. It will destroy our team,”

they are to be admired for their decisiveness, empathy and unshakable spirit. When I do half of that, for the same reasons and pretty much in the same context, I am immature, senseless and batshit crazy.

However, once you exercise the leadership muscle, it’s hard going back to looking just after yourself. After my experience leading several teams, I welcomed the “peace and quiet” of “just” being a product owner. Little did I know my leadership muscle would come back around to bite me in the butt on several occasions.

At some point, I was invited to talk in an event with a subject that was rather uncomfortable for that company and involved changing culture. Although I am keen on techniques and methods, and have a very strong technical knowledge, I also believe no technique works if you disregard the people. We make products with people and for people. Not considering the people aspect of everything we do is blinding ourselves to some seriously relevant data! So I said yes, because when it comes to changing culture, I am always on board.

We tried our best to make the content as low-key as possible. Our goal wasn’t to stir conflict, but reflection. Every sentence, image and reference was carefully weighed so that any debate was based on issues that everyone would agree were relevant and would improve all employees’ experience inside the company.

The content was scrutinized by the people who had jump-started the initiative as well as samples of our target-audience. I believed I was merely helping provide content to someone else’s idea. My role was a supportive one, so I acted as if they were command and control profile clients: I made the changes they requested, arguing very little and only when I thought was absolutely necessary.

Even so, the whole thing went sideways, and I suddenly saw myself in a room with a member of the company’s highest hierarchy level. The goal of the meeting was to “make sure I understood the company’s policy”. I was dumbfounded. In my eyes I had nothing to do with that discussion, given I had put my head down on purpose for the single reason I didn’t want to be held accountable if anyone thought talking about that specific need for change of culture was a problem. — a very un-leader-like position, I know.

But, as a matter of fact, if it were up to me and I had complete autonomy, the content would be completely different, and much more paradigm-breaking. I just didn’t feel safe to do that in the situation I was in.

Nonetheless, the email asking for the meeting was directed to me. Despite receiving information on who led the initiative, this was disregarded. The whole time the person in charge spoke, it was directed to me, and not the people that led the initiative, who were present and above my paygrade. At some point I felt the need to stress this issue, and say

“I am under the impression you think I was responsible for organizing this event.”

The answer I got, even as I was being reproached, was

“You should see this as a compliment, really. You place yourself as a leader, so no matter if it was your idea or not, the minute you step in, you are responsible.”

In and outside my “day job”, I am always pushing to help. I offer the little knowledge I have acquired through coaching, help and guidance regarding product management, agile practices, team building, personal development or simply dealing with other human beings. I go out of my way and into situations that are less than comfortable if someone asks for help.

This is much of what he was talking about: I call responsibility to myself and take it upon myself to help others improve, and I believe I learn a lot from each exchange. I am truly delighted to see amazing results as I hide myself backstage, away from the spotlight. I honestly would rather have it that way. Serves me right to think I could keep away from the spotlight if I wasn’t in an official leadership position.

At some point, I had official leaders (bosses) asking for my help to coach, teach and support professionals in muddy waters — which I would gladly do. The problem was, when I got to them, I would find out that no one had ever given them feedback about the poor performance that called for help. On the contrary, their leaders only talked to them if they had good news. Any “problem”, any feedback that could result in conflict was swept under the rug. Many times I was seen as the problem myself, given I brought on problems everybody refused to talk about.

I have an inkling that, if I were a man, I would be celebrated for my honesty and braveness in being transparent and addressing the difficult issues.

This is something I can’t stress enough: in all companies I visit, there are people who say they want to be leaders. They want to become managers, and say they want to help. However, for most of them, I can’t see the willingness to truly lead. What I see is a desire for power, recognition and a bigger salary, but not the will to take on the responsibility for the people you lead, their mistakes and pain. The expectations are not clear at the get-go, and the mistakes are not seen as opportunities for learning and guidance.

To lead is to be willing to empathize with someone else’s problem — and be willing to go through pain, conflict and discomfort to solve it.

A leader is someone who wants to make things work for the group’s sake. Who is willing to eat last, even at the risk of not having food left in the end. In my case, being a leader led me to being responsible for a lot I didn’t quite agree with, in a group I didn’t officially lead to begin with, including people hierarchically higher than myself.

In businesses, it is common to put pressure on employees in order to extract the results the company so desperately needs. The common, industrial-based belief is that, if left to their own devices, employees will do nothing productive all day. This is the mindset created by the industrial bourgeoisie, perpetuated through a century-plus of hierarchical labor, but already disproven by studies on knowledge workers. And as knowledge workers, we know that. We feel it in our flesh. Responding to bottom-up leadership with top-down command is, however predictable, highly ineffective in achieving positive results.

This makes me wonder if most people secretly have a very dangerous double-standard: they want leaders when they are led, but want nothing beyond commanded that put their heads down as they rise to positions of power. Even when we find a different culture, it is very common to mistake giving freedom to your employees with not having to lead them. I have found — both in agile and waterfall companies — absent and uninvolved bosses are just as common as the dictators.

With dictators, resilient women have a possible way for being heard: they deliver. If they deliver 10x more than men, they receive as retribution the opportunity of having their voice heard. But what can you do, as a woman, when the leaders are absent and uninvolved? I am very frustrated to say I haven’t found a solution yet. Because uninterested leaders don’t care if you’re trying to solve an important problem. They care if they are being disturbed from whatever is their real interest. And trying to solve problems demands you focus on them, which is very painful and discomforting. It is much easier if you just let things be, and allow the chaotic situation to solve itself — because it will, regardless of the cost.

“Let them sort themselves out and find a solution themselves” is no closer to leadership than making top-down decisions.

As knowledge working becomes the norm, success will lie with companies that foster leadership in its most altruistic form. Companies that incentivize a problem-solving culture, and not a conflict-avoiding stance. So if you are applying for a leadership position and you are not willing to solve problemas and sacrifice yourself so that others feel safe, nurtured and part of the solution, maybe you should rethink your career strategy. I am sure that, as an employee, you have complained about seeing too many bosses (and not leaders). Make sure you won’t become a boss yourself.