How authenticity transforms the way women lead

Female leaders must look within to change the behaviours that stop them from showing up authentically, believing in themselves and thriving, says leadership coach Jo Wagstaff

In a world hungry for change, women have the power to revolutionise our future. We need more female leaders unapologetically breaking barriers and shattering glass ceilings. Our unique perspectives, empathy and resilience can transform industries, fostering innovation and inclusivity. Female leaders can bring a diversity of ideas, nurturing collaboration and dismantling outdated norms and structures. We can inspire young girls to dream bigger, paving the way for a generation of trailblazers.

For much of my life as a female leader in the financial services industry, the need to prove myself and earn my worth to feel safe in this world stopped me from living and leading in a way that was true to myself.

Yet, in working with hundreds of professional women across countries and levels of seniority, I have learned that I am not alone. Whatever our histories, many of us have not learned how to be in a relationship with ourselves that encourages us to believe deeply in ourselves and our capabilities. A relationship that empowers us to step fully into, and lead, our own lives.

What’s holding you back?

We tend to look for answers outside ourselves, but transformation begins when we begin looking within. It’s when we begin gently and compassionately understanding why we do what we do, what unconsciously drives us and what true success looks like for us individually. Being true to ourselves in the way we live and lead our lives is the foundational ingredient to thriving both professionally and personally.

The challenge is that there are an infinite number of factors, both internal and external, that can make it hard to live and lead authentically. Some of these factors are cultural, while others are biological or come from our childhood.

Our family histories are chief among these factors, as they form our underlying beliefs and assumptions and create patterns of behaviours that shape how we show up in the world and go about trying to find our self-worth at work. Often, we will unconsciously implement one of the following three limiting and reactive coping strategies to get our needs met and to feel loved, safe, secure and worthwhile.

  • A complying strategy: driven by a need to be liked, this can often lead to us abandoning ourselves for other’s approval and being overly pleasing.
  • A controlling strategy: here, we may move against people and the world to try and control our environment and those around us, driven by anxiety, a need to prove ourselves and a fear of failure. This often leads to fault-finding, a compulsive drive to achieve, being demanding and forceful and striving to win at any cost.
  • A protecting strategy: we may withdraw and distance ourselves or over-intellectualise as a way of protecting ourselves from feeling vulnerable and not fully participating in the relationships we really need to.

Authenticity is courageous

Yet, through awareness, understanding and self-acceptance, we can feel liberated and empowered to create a different life for ourselves. To slowly, gently and with great self-compassion change the behaviours that stop us from showing up authentically, deeply believing in ourselves and thriving.

Authenticity is not something we have or don’t have. It’s a practice; a conscious choice for how we want to live and lead. It is a daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we truly are. Truly being ourselves and leading our lives authentically is one of the most challenging and courageous endeavours we’ll ever undertake in life.

Living an inauthentic life or living with cognitive dissonance is exhausting and drains both our capacity for joy and our ability to live and love fully. However, as we embrace the lifelong transformational ‘inner work’ that frees us to embody our authenticity, we can reveal more of who we are and see our own strengths and talents. We become aware of the beliefs and assumptions that limit us and adopt a broader set of leadership qualities that are necessary to show up with true inner confidence and lead effectively.

By fostering a stronger sense of self-awareness and self-compassion, along with a clear understanding of our values, purpose and vision, we are empowered to fully embrace the chance to lead a life true to ourselves. This enables us to wholeheartedly dedicate our skills and abilities to leading, whatever our role and even when confronted with cultural and societal biases or our own self-doubt.

There is an extraordinary power in women coming together. Together, we can unleash the untapped potential and brilliance that lies within. We can unify and ignite a world where equality and diversity thrive, where voices are amplified and where our collective potential is unleashed. Together, we can create a different future for ourselves and our children.

Jo Wagstaff is a leadership coach and the author of Lead Like You: How Authenticity Transforms the Way Women Live, Love and Succeed, published by Wiley

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