In a recent workshop, a human resources leader posed a question about women in leadership. She asked, “If all things are equal – our education, our experience, our abilities, then what is it about women that keep them from moving forward in the career to the extent men do?” It was a great question and one that’s been asked in a myriad of ways throughout the years. Sheryl Sandberg covers it extensively in her book, Lean In. Women, Work, and The Will to Lead.
My reply to the question was not only related to my own experience with a long-standing corporate career, but also in working with many women in career or personal transitions.
I’ve observed that it’s not just what’s on the outside that’s influencing outcome, but what’s often coming from the inside. What’s on the inside is often the great saboteur.
To emphasize my point, I shared a story from an Equine Assisted Learning session with a Millenial woman. I asked her to go from point A to B with Andrew, a tall wiry Thoroughbred horse. The caveat was that Andrew was not going to be attached to her. No lead line. No halter. And she wasn’t allowed to bribe him. She simply needed to influence him to follow her. Much to her surprise, Andrew willingly kept to her side. They traveled 10 feet alongside one another, then 20, then 30 feet. Somewhere around 45 feet in their journey, however, Andrew suddenly stopped in his tracks. The woman continued to walk on for a bit and then stood motionless herself, her back facing Andrew. She was at a distance so I called out, “What happened at the very moment Andrew stopped?”. Her response, “I stopped believing I could do it. My doubt took over.”
Our coaching session went on to explore how our thoughts often sabotage us and our ability to get things done. They may stop us dead in our tracks, or make a task arduous, if not impossible, to complete. Not only that, the lack of confidence impedes others, just as Andrew demonstrated. Extremely sensitive to the energy fields around them, once a negative thought interrupts positive flow, horses react to the physiological shift that takes place in our body. They provide us with immediate bio-feedback so we can explore when, where, and why it takes place.
If there is a shadow of doubt about our own abilities our influence corrodes. Less than optimal behavior shows up, and our emotional quotient (EQ) erodes with it.
As Sandberg writes, “These internal obstacles deserve a lot more attention, in part because they are under our own control. We can dismantle the hurdles in ourselves today”. The imposter syndrome she referred to in her book, emphasizes that women tend to experience it more intensely and be more limited by it then men.
Regardless of the clothes we wear, our title, our education, or salary, our inner chit-chat negatively impacts our leadership presence. While we may be projecting ourselves one way, the fear, the anxiety, and the doubt that may be running inside, as if churning on a hamster wheel, influences the outcome.
If personal or professional attainment seems to remain outside your reach, it’s time to pay attention to what you’re hearing from within. While there are many internal factors to explore, the following are some of the root causes I often see that keep women from realizing their goals:
Fear and Doubt – Doubt comes from fear. It builds neurotic thoughts that dominate the psyche, creating constant worry. Fear stems from a lack of control or threat to your emotional or physical wellbeing. It’s at the core of many barriers women have and creates anxiety, drives emotions and shows up in behaviors at work and at home. Ask yourself whether it’s a real or perceived threat. If the latter, what are your perceptions based upon and are they true?
Anger – Anger can be attributed to a physical or emotional boundary that’s been crossed. If anger crops up, strive to understand what needs to be protected, and what boundary needs to be established.
Beliefs – What is it that you’ve been taught to believe about your own abilities, or success, that shapes your current behavior? What assumptions do you make about yourself or others that create limitations? Which come from your upbringing, close relationships, or are societal? Which do you bring on yourself? How do these disrupt your goals and ambitions?
Confidence and risk-taking are necessary attributes of a leader. If your internal voice plays back old, but not necessarily true tapes, those fears, doubts, emotions, and beliefs will continue to intercept your success. Explore what’s needed to silence your own voice so you’re poised to masterfully lead yourself while positively leading others, from the inside out.