Recently, I’ve been thinking about leadership in all guises. And when I think about it, I realise that everyone will have taken the lead at some point in their lives:
Games in the playground often have a leader who dictates which friend can be the captain and which character everyone will play.
In our jobs, most of us will have had to be the lead on a decision, whether it’s from a managerial standpoint or a small project.
Some of us lead households.
Some of us lead riots, campaigns and movements for good.
And then there are the world leaders, but let’s not get into that.
As regular readers will know, I love Deborah Frances-White and her podcast, The Guilty Feminist and today, I listened to a recent episode all about (you guessed it) LEADERSHIP.
Naturally, being a feminist podcast, the focus was on getting more women and minority genders into leadership positions. The discussion was funny, insightful and rousing. (I’d highly recommend listening to it – you can do that here – it’s episode 189 in case you’re reading this in the future and it’s no longer the most recent episode.) I won’t repeat the podcast, and I don’t want to share my thoughts on encouraging women into roles of leadership. Whilst this is a very worthy cause and women should be supported in pursuing positions of responsibility, I’m not sure I have anything insightful to add to the conversation. What I do want to comment on is the necessary caveat: let’s get women into leadership roles, but only those who want to. It was Cal Wilson who made this remark. Not everyone wants to be a leader. Women who desire to lead and haven’t been given the opportunity should absolutely be supported, but some women have ample opportunities to lead yet haven’t wanted to put themselves forward. Maybe it’s a lack of confidence or fear that they’ll be criticised, but some are very happy being second, assisting the leader’s leading.
In 2020, when we can do and be almost anything (whilst also checking our privilege) if we don’t wish to reach the top of our field, travel around the world for meetings in airport hotels, leave the office at 9pm only to continue to respond to emails until bedtime in the early hours, we can feel like a failure. Ambition and success come in all shapes and sizes. And only we are the ones who have to live our lives.
Many women in their twenties are leading teams, heading up their departmental projects and running campaigns. As a teacher, I led a classroom and eventually the maths curriculum, only to move on from teaching at the end of the academic year. As expected, pursuing another career has meant I’ve had to start from the bottom again. And although I’m not managing other people or leading a team, I take the lead on projects and all written content for our publishing house.
And yet, this doesn’t worry me. I can’t be certain I’ll never want to run a business, and despite my ever-believing boss saying I’d be successful, for now, it’s not in my career plan. Seeing first-hand the stresses, pressures and commitment involved in owning your own business or leading a global company, I’m not really sure it’s for me. It’s not Imposter Syndrome or lack of confidence (she says, worrying she sounds arrogant), being a leader of a company simply does not interest me.
Some may consider this unambitious, but I have big plans for what I’m going to do on my Mac…
Since leaving teaching and finding my way into publishing, I’ve had time (lots of it!) to discover what’s important in my career. Enjoyment and fulfilment definitely top the list. And whilst health has not been my friend for most of my twenties, I’ve come to realise that my physical and mental health must come before work commitments. ‘Ha! The Snowflake Generation’, some may call, but we’re working longer than previous generations with an estimated retirement age of 70. I’m sure I’m not alone in hoping for early retirement, but if I’m working well into my 60s and 70s I had better make sure I get there in one piece!
We need to continue to cheer-on small work-successes. We need to understand and accept that middle-levels of seniority suit many people.
Yes, the number of leaders must be fewer than the number of followers, by definition, but I refute the argument that positions of leadership are static. Whilst top-heavy organisations can be detrimental to staff-structure, space can often be made for additional positions of responsibility – we need to be flexible to allow for this. We need to learn what makes each of us tick as individuals, the value we place on our careers and what we want from them. We need to stop pressuring people to achieve more, more, more if it means a reduction in happiness and wellbeing. And more importantly, we need to not deem ourselves a failure if we don’t wish to be a CEO.