Betsy Myers is currently the Founding Director of the Center for Women and Business at Bentley University. A leadership expert, author and advocate, she is also speaking at conferences and workshops around the world on the changing nature of leadership. Her book, Take the Lead: Motivate, Inspire, and Bring Out the Best in Yourself and Everyone Around You, continues to be the basis of her work as her experience spans the corporate, political and high education arena.
As Executive Director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, she focused the center’s teaching and research around personal leadership. Senior adviser to two U.S. Presidents, she was most recently the Chief Operating Officer of the Obama Presidential Campaign and Chair of Women for Obama.
During the Clinton Administration, Betsy spent several years at the U.S. Small Business Administration in posts that included Director of the Office of Women’s Business Ownership. She then moved to the White House as President Clinton’s senior adviser on women’s issues and Director of the Office for Women’s Initiatives and Outreach.
Guest Post From Up with People Alumna Betsy Myers.
October 11th is International Day of the Girl, a UN sanctioned date.
“Empowerment of, and investment in, girls is the key to breaking the cycle of discrimination and violence, and to promoting and protecting the full and effective enjoyment of their human rights.”
As we celebrate and acknowledge the Day of the Girl, I want to highlight an important aspect of this important crusade that is often over-looked. Leadership of self is our individual path to empowerment.
I am always amazed when I ask the question to an audience of women or girls, “How many of you believe you are a leader?” Usually, less than half the hands go up. I quickly remind them that each of us is a leader because, at the very least, we are leading our own lives. Most people don’t see leadership this way. So often we see a “leader” as someone larger than life, as if leadership were something exclusive to powerful people in distant places: someone who is at the top an organization, church, synagogue or country. But every CEO, president or coach starts as a child, on their individual path to who they will become.
Leadership is first and foremost about taking responsibility for our lives, no matter our situation. This is by no means giving discrimination or any kind of abuse a pass, especially as we acknowledge the Day of the Girl; but a key piece of empowerment is taking the reins of your life, accepting and becoming the leader of you.
Life is our personal journey to self-knowledge and self-acceptance. It is discovering our highest and best purpose and contribution. This is only possible if we step into our most unique and wonderful self. There is an almost magnetic, joyful quality in people who wholeheartedly love who they are and what they do, and that quality is authenticity.
One of my favorite stories of all time was when my daughter, Madi, was just 8 years old. She had discovered dance and was taking classes in ballet, tap, jazz, hip- hop and tap. One Saturday, we were at the dance store shopping for a leotard and shoes for the year. As she tried on her black leotard with a matching skirt, she stood in front of the mirror assessing her new outfit; her face lit up and she was beaming. She turned to me with the most remarkable smile and said, “Mommy, I am freaking out with joy! I was born to dance.”
Madi’s love of dancing, and the pure joy she felt when doing it, reminded me that it is those times in our lives when we are freaking out with joy that give us our greatest clues about who we are and where we genuinely belong.
My favorite part of being Madi’s Mom has been watching her discover her unique self, which has given me an opportunity to see the world again through fresh eyes. As adults, it’s easy to lose our wonder. Children take us back to the curiosity and joy that lead us to our authenticity.
For years, many academics and researchers were looking for the magic formula of leadership. Some offered a precise list to memorize, as if to say, “If you want to be a successful leader, you just need to follow these five to 10 steps, or imitate the actions of a particular fortune 500 CEO; then you will surely find success.” But it doesn’t work that way. In fact, over the past 50 years, leadership scholars have conducted more than 1,000 studies in an attempt to determine the definitive styles, characteristics or personality traits of perceived great leaders and leadership. None of these studies has produced a clear profile of the ideal leader.
This is not a failure of scholarship. In fact, it is an example of excellent scholarship, and what it demonstrates, with such scientific thoroughness, is that there is no clear profile of the “ideal leader.” Genuine leadership is not trying to imitate another leader, or striving to fit into a certain box or definition. Genuine, authentic leadership is what emerges when we are fully and freely ourselves.
Authenticity isn’t something you can put on like a jacket — or generate by copying someone else. Leadership is about who you genuinely are. It is also not a switch you can simply turn on at will. Just as any meaningful relationship with another person needs time to blossom and grow, our relationship with ourselves also takes time to develop.
We all grow up in a context where we are pushed and pulled by a host of social influences, parents, teachers and other authority figures who encourage us to be one way; then there are friends, partners and spouses who urge us to be another way; we also get millions of mixed messages from advertisers and social media sites, which show us examples of “happy” and “successful” people, and tell us to be yet another way.
It’s easy to get lost living someone else’s life or dream. I once worked with a friend and colleague who on his 50th birthday admitted that he had spent his entire career in finance because his mother thought it wise to get an accounting degree. He would always have a stable job. The problem was that his real passion and interest was in the arts. He was creative and had always wanted to do something in design. He was living an inauthentic life and he was definitely struggling with his happiness and joy.
So how do we get that clarity of who we really are? People often ask, “How do I discover my joy, or how do I know when I am truly living my authentic life?” It can be hard to figure out, and sometimes even harder to face; but I believe we know it instinctively. We all know what it feels like when we are wearing a sweater that doesn’t fit or match our personal style. Sometimes we decide to wear it anyway, but we know it’s making us uncomfortable. If it feels like you are wearing the wrong sweater, you probably are. As in the case of my friend, he was wearing the wrong sweater, and he knew it.
We are each born with our internal compass, an innate sense that tells us if the direction we’re heading in feels right or doesn’t feel right. Sometimes we ignore that gut feeling, or talk ourselves into believing our gut is steering us wrong. Most of us can remember times when we made poor choices because we didn’t listen to our instincts.
Feedback from others is valuable, and we often rely on mentors and key people in our life who know us and can give us honest feedback. But the most important feedback is that which comes from ourselves. Part of living an authentic life is learning to trust that internal compass.
How do we learn to trust ourselves? It takes effort to create space in our lives, to step back from the noise in our heads and lives, and to find some quiet so that we can hear what our instincts are telling us. Today’s plugged-in life allows little time for quiet reflection. And we find ourselves overscheduled and constantly multitasking, with information coming at us from a dozen different directions at once. When do we make time to unplug and just be with ourselves for awhile? Most people answer that question with…NEVER.
Madi is now 16, and she recently went to a World Leadership Congress, hosted by an organization called HOBY (Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership), which brings together over 400 students from across the United States and the world for a truly life-changing week. They explore what it really means to impact the world and make change for the better in our lives and communities.
The theme of the conference Madi attended was, “Believe in yourself but first you must be yourself.” Madi had been struggling with a decision of whether to run cross-country in the fall, her junior year. She had been on both the cross- country and track team the year before. She loved the over-all experience but realized that long distance was not something she was good at or enjoyed. She was clear about being part of the indoor track team later in the fall, preferring shorter distances. She felt cross country was not for her, but was fearful of the reaction from both her coach and teammates — who were also her good friends.
After her experience at HOBY, she became clear. She preferred spending the fall concentrating on her studies. She agonized over many unknowns that included: Will I lose my friends? Will people think I am a quitter? What if I regret my decision? But, in the end, she listened to her heart and true self and took the leap to NOT be part of the cross-country team. She did encounter some push back with her friends, who were disappointed, but she was clear and felt a profound sense of relief in the wake of her decision. True friends will come around, if they are true friends, as hers are. But sometimes we lose people along our journey because they want us to be something we are not.
These are the kind of decisions when we are young that guide us to our authentic, best and happiest selves. We will come to many forks in the road throughout our lives, but the more we listen to, and trust in, our internal compass, the better we’ll be able to navigate, discover, learn and evolve. That is what real leadership is all about.
“Maybe we should follow
The footsteps of a girl.
The woman of tomorrow,
Let’s fight for a better world.”
Footsteps of a Girl, © Up with People