What I’ve Learned About Leadership

Photo Courtesy of http://www.womenpr.com

Great leaders are invaluable.  It is easy to forget how important it is from time to time for someone to give us a nudge in the right direction.  Recently, I conducted three phenomenal interviews with ‘Olympia’, ‘Liz’, and Diane.  Olympia is a Facilities Coordinator at a national law firm.  Liz is the Continuing Legal Education Coordinator at one of the leading communications law firms in New York City, and Diane is a paralegal who is in her third year of law school.   I asked them to talk about their respective fields and about their opinions on leadership.  The conversations I had with each of these women reminded me to take a look at my leadership skills as well as to analyze how I am being led.

During these interviews, I asked each of the women whether they thought leaders were born or made and received a mixture of answers.  Diane’s gut response was consistent with early trait theories of leadership.  These theories stressed that leaders are born and not made.  Olympia and Liz thought that although leaders could be made, most needed to have something innate that could be cultivated.  They also both implied that even the most effective leaders needed to be coached in order to reach their true potentials.

Consequently, this demonstrated that framing is extremely important.  It also showed me that perception influences they way leaders see things and effects those that are being led.  Framing, as described in the book “The Art of Framing: Managing The Language of Leadership” by Gail T. Fairhurst and Robert A. Sarr, is simply the “ability to manage meaning”.  Communicating a point of view so that others can relate to it and produce is the job of an effective leader.  Sometimes people are aware that they are motivating others, or having some sort of impact on another person, and sometimes they are not.  For example, Diane talked of being tired until she sees a pregnant woman on her way to work.  This pregnant woman unknowingly motivated Diane to push forward to achieve her goals.  Olympia told of knowing that appreciating her staff and all that they had to offer allowed them to let her lead them.  She has placed her behavior into context to be more effective.  Her current struggle to be efficient, without being interpreted as a bitch, is a lesson in framing her actions so that they are interpreted well by her team members.

Furthermore, each of the ladies implied that they are conscious of gender issues.  Whether blatantly asked or not, each person mentioned something that motivated them or concerned them about being a woman in corporate america.  For example, Liz mentioned that she was motivated by witnessing a female professor who went back to law school after having twins.  Seeing someone with similar challenges, enabled her to frame her situation and be motivated to work harder.  Diane demonstrated knowledge of sacrifices that would need to be made if she wanted to start a family because of the nature of the legal field.  She spoke of a friend who was directly questioned about her plans to have a family while on an interview.  It was implied that a choice had to be made between becoming a star lawyer, and having a family.

In addition, Olympia shared first hand experience of challenges she faces trying to motivate men and gain their respect.  Humbling oneself enough to admit when one is wrong and letting go of fears have been cornerstones in her success.  She realizes that it will take some time to gain her team’s trust but continues to work diligently at it.  She finds her field both challenging and rewarding.  Her journey reminds me of the challenges described in “Ladies, Flirts, and Tomboys: Strategies for Managing Sexual Harassment in an Underground Coal Mine”, an article in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography.  Written by Kristen R. Yount, it talks about the challenges women coal miners faced when trying to adjust in a male dominated industry.  Although Olympia did not experience sexual harassment, she is struggling with identifying her role as a supervisor and woman.  She sees the successful female managers as being bitches but she does not want to fall into that category.  As a result, she tries to find ways to assert her knowledge and strength without being typecast.  In the article by Kristen Yount, the women coal miners usually fall into three categories: ladies, flirts, and tomboys, in an effort to adjust to a testosterone filled environment.  The men then framed their behaviors as a result of the categories the women chose.  Tomboys ended up having the most success because they wanted it to be known that they could do as much work as the men.  At first the men teased them for it but in the long run, they respected the tomboys.  Some were even promoted and had no problems leading the men under them.  This is the direction Olympia has chosen.  I think she will reach her goal of becoming a Facilities Manager sooner than she thinks because she has chosen to focus on authentic skills and knowledge.

Lastly, each of the women stressed education in one way or another.  Liz spoke of continuing to learn new technologies on the job.  She often took the incentive to volunteer and be of service in various practice areas, thus keeping her skills sharp and her opportunities open.  Keeping abreast of various state laws and accreditation rules allow her to remain effective in her current position.  She is also researching various programs that will allow her to finish her degree at night.  Diane is currently in law school and expressed how much she enjoys her classes.  Learning the fundamentals of law and relating what she learns to her job as a paralegal remains compelling for her.  Olympia continues to work on further accreditations with various facilities management associations while she finishes her degree at night.  Each woman feels that education and remaining current on the issues in their field is pertinent to ongoing success.

I have learned that anyone can be a leader if they truly want to be.  Sometimes, you have to lead yourself in order to prevent stagnation.  Mentorship can be crucial, but without it, one can be equally successful if they try to be.  Being open to new experiences, thought processes, and theories helps to grow the individual.  Leaders must continue to grow in order to keep their momentum moving forward.  From what these women have told me, in order to keep your momentum, you have to keep learning.

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