Authentic Toughness

Wednesday 18th October 2017


Recently I spoke at the RBS GILT 2017 conference in London. (Growing Inclusive Leadership in Tech). My talk titled “Persist” covered the subject of mental toughness in women leaders.

One of the perception exercises in this talk asks each delegate to describe themselves; they can choose three words from a list of 24. To date, no woman has chosen “tough” from the list. Women prefer to describe themselves as soft, caring, friendly and reliable. Also interestingly, few will choose leader. 

So it concerns me that even in a leadership conference, few women as a first choice will choose “tough” and “leader” to describe themselves. Research suggests women with overt ambition it can negatively impact promotion prospects and the cleverer the woman, the less likable she is. However the opposite is true for men, overt ambition is expected and helps promotion prospects, and clever guys are more likable. I firmly believe that we become what we believe, we are shaped by how we see the world and how we see ourselves.

So make no mistake being tough, even wanting to be tough is hard for women. As well as tough, women leaders are advised to “play the game,” they play well or badly, but there is no choice not to play. Playing involves understanding gender differences just to navigate, survive and thrive in the male work environment; it’s a big ask. Add in authenticity, and now we are confused. How do you play a “game” and be “authentic”? Is it possible to play the game authentically? 

I believe we need to understand the true meaning of “authentic.”

In my world authenticity is knowing who you are, knowing what you stand for, what you value, what you will fight for, what you will sacrifice and what you will not. Authenticity shows itself in a deep awareness of self and behavioral acts of courage, honesty, humility, sincerity, vulnerability, and acceptance. For women in leadership just displaying these acts in the workplace requires a brand of “toughness” Being yourself (a woman in leadership) isn’t easy in the workplace. (If in doubt, just ask the UK Prime Minister Theresa May).

Popeye infamously said “I yam what I yam,” he made no excuses, no apologies, nor did he doubt himself, take me or leave me. Authentic and tough!

You can’t fake authenticity, it’s in the DNA of great leaders, and where you find it, you will also find toughness. 

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