I attended the Leaders & Icons conference on 10 May, thanks to Young Women in Business, Toronto Chapter. When I saw James Comey featured among the speakers, I was curious to hear him talk. I guess all the ‘Mission Impossible’ movies did their job on this one, as I could even hear the MI theme playing in my mind.
And what I found was much better than a movie series. I heard a lot of interesting stories being told, with many brave people taking the stage and talking about leadership. Now, leadership, being a vast topic, can be spoken about in many ways and approached from different angles.
The discussion focused very much around the equal opportunities for women to take on leadership roles – why this doesn’t happen as often as we’d like it to, why when it happens it’s usually too late for the company anyway, how we can make it happen more often from now on.
I think this discussion is good and I’m happy it takes place. I mean, women’s place in history was so secondary, so unimportant and then so taken for granted, until it wasn’t anymore, and it is all due to fierce women who had something to say about it! Brave women who didn’t accept the status quo, and who dared express themselves (yes, Madonna included, remember her song) and set the tone for all other women to follow. Because, well, leaders don’t exist without followers, right?
Yet, I can’t help but feel this discussion is a little too much sometimes. And I realized why.
I took these two photos during Peter Aceto’s speech. He was, of course, talking about leadership, and how we transition from the old leadership style to the new one. And, apparently coincidentally but maybe not mistakenly, I took the photo of the old leadership style while he was changing slides, so this is what came out of it.
(What it says – and I had a really hard time deciphering it – is: strong, powerful, confident, in control, knows ‘his’ stuff, formal, authoritative, dominant).
And I was fascinated by that. Because I suddenly realized something. Yes, this is the old style, which still exists in many places because this is just how things have always been done and why change anything? To this question, the photo really comes as the perfect answer: well, change it before it disappears for good and you can’t make anything out of it. Change it before you’re all staring at a blank slide. But just don’t change it for the sake of change, change it while remembering its values, its ups and downs, its pros and cons – change it while learning from it.
And, only then, transition to this new one, which is, truly, a blend of feminine and masculine features. I mean, who would have placed ‘courageous’ and ‘vulnerable’ together, much less in a leadership definition, BEFORE? Or ‘vulnerability’ and ’empathy’ brought to the board table – which was unthinkable BEFORE.
Just like BEFORE women actors, or women heads of state, or women voting, or women CEOs, these adjectives’ access in the board room was denied.
So I realized why I thought the discussion around preconceived ideas and discrimination when it comes to women was too much for me.
Because we need to stop complaining and we need to start praising. We need to start talking about the accomplishments. We need to have a look at the ‘accomplishment slate’ before it gets blank and we forget what we had there in the first place! Much like my photo.
Times have changed, and mainly, in these last about 15-20 years, due to this identity revolution (gender, race, religion, you name it). And look at these two slides. Leadership didn’t just change overnight, all by itself. How did we come to transition from one to the other? Isn’t it also due to this gender revolution we’ve seen happening? This means a whole lot! It means women created enough space and power to be able to say what they had to say and do what they had to do. Alongside men and sometimes ahead of them. They’ve changed the slate and we need to make sure we’re clear on what’s changed and on how we’d like to do things from now on. But it won’t work the same as BEFORE.
Because I don’t think we should replace one strict system with another strict system. No, this one, the new leadership model, leaves room for flexibility, for improvisation, for the ‘human’ side in all of us. So let’s be human about it. Let’s stop, admire and appreciate what’s been done so far and start thinking about the kind of environment we need to create for this to flourish. And this cannot happen by replacing one type of discrimination with another, one label with another. This starts with acceptance, because it was the lack of it that brought women fighting for their rights in the first place!
I think it starts with all of us agreeing on the destination AND the means to get there. With women and men who lead the way, and with women and men following them on this journey.
And yes, there are men who are comfortable with this leadership style, such as there are women who are still not.
Comey’s interview went from the FBI investigation on Hillary Clinton, then his 5 months under the Trump administration and then to his team in difficult times. And he gave an example of how his team handled the situation when they had to decide whether or not to re-open the investigation on Hillary Clinton 11 days before the elections. And, just as in a ‘Mission Impossible’ movie, I had this clear image in my head when he said: ‘we were 12 people in the room looking for the best solution and no one thought about me as the boss’. Because no, in a crisis you don’t want your team to double check internally whether or not they’re supposed to say this or that not to upset the boss. You want them to work with you, not FOR you. When you have experts around you, you know you’re not the smartest person in the room, and anyway who cares about that? When you’re in a crisis situation, you look at doing the best you can with what you have.
On the way home, probably all inspired but the discussions and ideas, my mind suddenly remembered what my daughter told me at some point this year. She said ‘ mom, when I grow up I’m gonna have a business, just like you, and maybe we can work together’.
And so, I think we reached our purpose: our girls and daughters can now follow their dreams in many parts of the world, without thinking twice. Because the right premises have been created. So let’s not pass our biases onto them. Or onto our sons, for that matter. Let’s think about what we do with what we have right now, to make the best out of it.
Let’s learn from the BEFORE, and then let’s move it to the AFTER.
PS: the simple fact that I can write about all this today is the sum of accomplishments BEFORE me. So is the fact that many women will be reading this blog. And for this, I’m grateful. Another reason I could write about this the way I did, is BECAUSE I’m a woman. How would you have read this if I was a man, by the way? That’s a discussion for AFTER.