Joining hearts and minds: top lessons from women leaders
I’m leaving, because with such a privileged role comes responsibility – the responsibility to know when you are the right person to lead and also when you are not. I know what this job takes. And I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice. It’s that simple.
These are the concluding words by former New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden who resigned earlier this month. Typically, no one would expect a national leader to unabashedly bare their vulnerability, admit burnout and take such a bold decision, of this proportion. Even as everyone is reeling from the unexpected resignation, this signals how women leaders are redefining the rules of leadership and there are critical lessons to be learnt from them.
Women are underscoring that today’s leadership is no longer about being the most authoritative or powerful voice in the room. Rather, it’s about leading people by being unabashedly vulnerable and human. Unabashedly vulnerable and totally cool with mentoring others while leading with EQ and IQ, in a cut-throat world. These are the new female leaders on the block, who are unafraid of failures, willing to put others ahead and are fine with moving on, when they feel the need.
Lessons: How women leaders are bringing the ‘Leadership Cool’ quotient to work
- Lesson 1: Being imperfect, authentic and empathetic is the new perfect: Jacinda Arden has underscored that it’s okay to be human and own up to your vulnerabilities and step up to do the right thing for people in a situation, instead of being ego driven and focusing on what benefits the leader only. She has always been very approachable, consistent and genuine in her communication.
In her journey as NZ’s youngest and the first female Prime Minister since 2017, Arden unfolded the happiness budget, led the world in responding swiftly to Covid-19 by locking down her country quickly, taking a 20 percent pay cut to support those who lost their jobs or had scaled down salaries. She also became the world’s first leader to go on maternity leave while in office, returning to work six weeks later. Ardern formally introduced her daughter Neve to the world by taking her to a United Nations conference on September 28, 2018. In doing so, she sent out a powerful message about women in leadership roles. “I am not the first woman to multi-task,” she said during an interview on Radio New Zealand. “I am not the first woman to work and have a baby – there are many women who have done this before.”
Arden has been praised for her warmth and empathetic approach as a leader and she was also ranked as the most popular poll PM in 100 years, in NZ.
“Kindness, and not being afraid to be kind, or to focus on, or be really driven by empathy,” she has said of what is at the heart of her leadership style. “I think one of the sad things that I’ve seen in political leadership is – because we have placed so much emphasis on notions of assertiveness and strength over time – that we have probably assumed that it means you can’t have those other qualities of kindness and empathy. And yet, when you think about all the big challenges that we face in the world, that’s probably the quality we need the most.”
This development has drawn praise and admiration across the globe with one of her own government officials who stated on his twitter handle, “Jacinda Arden has shown the world how to lead with intellect and strength. She has demonstrated that empathy and insight are powerful leadership qualities.”
When asked in one of her interviews how she would like her leadership to be remembered, Arden answered, “As someone who always tried to be kind.”
Author Jacqueline Carter speaks of compassionate wisdom and vulnerability, which can drive a huge impact. She defines compassionate wisdom as the ability to take tough and appropriate decisions in the most humane way. By bringing their vulnerable or ‘human’ side to work, women leaders drive more engagement, transparency, motivation and productivity.
- Lesson 2: Defying failure and negativity to shatter the glass ceiling: From being broken to breaking the record of being one of modern India’s most compelling success stories in business, Café Coffee Day Enterprises Ltd.’s CEO Malavika Hegde has shown how failure can be the greatest teacher in the darkest hour. Unable to tackle a Rs 7200 crore debt, her husband VG Sidhartha committed suicide. Hegde took over as CEO of Café Coffee Day amid skepticism about the company’s future and advised her not to bet on a losing battle. But she stuck to her guns and dived right in. It wasn’t an easy road with the jobs of hundreds on employees on the line, near bankruptcy situation, and the pressure of facing international giants like Starbucks, Barista and others.
In a letter to the workforce and investors, she assured everyone that she would save the dying empire by taking some tough business decisions, selling off some investments, and focusing on expansion. Within two years, there was a turnaround as CCD expanded across the country, flourished in lockdown, grew coffee beans in their own plantation-— these are also in high demand overseas — and revived fortunes by clocking huge profits.
In another note written to all stakeholders and employees recently, Malavika declared that “they were “able to achieve this unbelievable feat in two years without any favours from any lender, and she will not only repay every single penny back to them but also revive Cafe Coffee Day.”
- Lesson 3: Diversity, Equality and Inclusion matters, but it’s important to lift each other up too: New age female leaders are slowly turning things around by leaning on and supporting other female co-workers and raising them up through learning and development initiatives, acknowledgment, valuing them, understanding their talents and comfort and create a secure and psychologically safe environment.
For many who think NFT is a male dominated domain in metaverse, using her own example and resources, a woman has been raising an army of like-minded talented women to bust this myth. Lisa Mayer is the founder of women-led initiative for artists and mission-driven NFT project Boss Beauties. She has rolled out scholarships and mentorship programs not just for Next Gen young women but working mothers as well who want to spread their wings in leadership, technology, and creative domains. This is via her non-profit organisation My Social Canvas, which has changed many lives for a decade, now.
In fact in 2021, Mayer launched the NFT Boss Beauty collection on the New York Stock Exchange for the first time ever, sold off the collection within hours of launch and found many keen investors for its business venture. The NFT collection focused on female avatars of impactful female personalities like Black American poet Maya Angelou, artist Frida Kahlo among others, which drew a lot of attention.
Boss Beauties has worked with multiple brands including Hugo Boss, Mattel, Neiman Marcus among others. The three million dollars raised by the sales of this collection will further fund mentorship programs for women and Mayer, in of her interviews, said, “If you look at what drives us, it’s really our passion for helping women be everything they want to be,” Mayer said. “They can break the glass ceilings, they can make history and do anything in their life, in their career.”
- Lesson 4: Leading from the heart and leaning in to listen to every voice: Several studies indicate that as listeners, women leaders tend to create an ecosystem of trust, value, psychological comfort as they respond to non-verbal cues, are more compassionate, understanding and are able to get more perspectives on situations and have a more wider view.
According to bestselling author of the book The Future Leader, Jacob Morgan, only 8 percent leaders are good listeners. “Leaders of the future must be translators, which means that they are great listeners and communicators. I partnered with LinkedIn to survey nearly 14,000 employees around the world and only 8% of employees reported that their mid and senior-level leaders are practicing this skill “very well.” Clearly there is lots of room for improvement,” he mentioned in an interview.
Mary Spio, the founder and CEO of CEEK VR was raised in Ghana and was 16 when her parents saved up enough money to send her to the United States. Since then, she has served in the Air Force and created content and technologies for global titans such as Boeing.
In a media interview, she recounted a story about early space teams gathering around to figure out how to create a gravity-defying pen to bring into space, when a housecleaner overheard and said, “Have you thought about a pencil?” Spio says that’s what she thinks about when she’s building her business.
A 2020 research published in Frontiers asserted that women have a higher degree of empathy than men. Female leaders can help improve the understanding between leadership and employees and take steps toward employee well-being.
Eventually, leadership is not about creating a distinction between the genders or a competition to decide who fares better. Ideal leadership is where it doesn’t matter whether you are a man or a woman. Rather the biggest learning that new female leaders are reflecting is that leadership is not just growth of the self as a human or as a professional, but it’s about seamlessly joining hearts and minds for creating a future of one’s choice.