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IWD 2023: Finding your leadership identity means defeating comparison culture
Wed, 8th Mar 2023
FYI, this story is more than a year old

They say ‘comparison is the thief of joy’, but when it comes to your professional life, it can also be the thief of potential, too. As a female founder who found my footing in male-dominated boardrooms, I spent a long time falling into the trap of comparing my leadership potential to the people around me.

After many years and a lot of introspection, I realised that trying to mimic the leadership identities around me was like wearing a mask to work every day (covid jokes aside). Instead, I shifted my focus to honing my unique qualities and skills to become a manager, leader, and founder of a company in a way that comes authentically to me.

Mastering this in the age of comparison culture is no easy feat, but there are a few key lessons that helped me ditch the self-doubt and embrace my own leadership identity.

To authentically lead, you must abandon inferiority

Before I found my leadership style, I used to look at other female leaders and feel disheartened by all the qualities that they seemed to possess with ease but which I struggled to embody. They would dominate a room and insert themselves in conversations with an air of authority that demanded respect. I thought to myself, “how will I be taken seriously if I can’t be like that too?”

These feelings of inferiority were only inflamed by instances where my colleagues would ask me what I was cooking for dinner before turning to my male counterparts – many of whom were often less experienced than I was – and talk strategy. Over time, however, I realised that I was self-sabotaging my chances at being a great leader by letting my feelings of inferiority take up so much space.

It’s exhausting to compare yourself to others and, in my case, spend your time wishing that you had qualities that just aren’t in your nature. Instead, leaders should work on bringing their whole selves to the table. Rather than changing who you are based on the room you’re in, true, authentic leadership means being confident in the value you bring to others. This cannot exist with inferiority in the way, and it was only once I realised this that I began succeeding as a leader.

Refusing to compete can often make you the winner

Many people often confuse great leadership with having the loudest voice in the room. When you’re surrounded by people clamouring to assert their authority, it can feel as though the only way to earn your seat at the table is to join in. However, the truth is that bringing out the best in others and learning to speak only when you’re adding something of value is a far more impressive quality than asserting yourself out of ego – and will get you farther in the end, too.

I experienced this first-hand while I was speaking on a panel many years ago. My fellow panellists would speak over each other when any question was asked – including ones not relevant to their skill set or area of expertise. Everyone wanted a word in, and the result wasn’t pretty.

Not wanting to add to the noise, I purposely kept quiet until I had something valuable to say that was relevant to my area of expertise. I left the panel having spoken far less than everyone else but confident that what I did say was far more impressive than speaking for the sake of being heard. A few days later, I won a client out of that event. They said they wanted to speak to me because I didn’t join the noise, speaking only when I had something insightful, considered, valuable, and relevant to say.

The lesson here is something I still think about to this day. Many people who call themselves leaders are more concerned with bravado than they are with substance. True leaders care about adding value and offering support, even if it means they aren’t immediately noticed. 

Your ideal leadership style encompasses your full range of qualities

I used to think that being a great leader meant putting aside key parts of my personal identity, such as empathy and vulnerability. Eventually, I realised that removing core qualities from your leadership style simply means you can never bring your whole self to the table. 

Empathy will allow you to better understand and connect with your employees. Intuition will guide you to new opportunities. Self-awareness will allow you to identify when something isn’t working or when you need to make changes. Qualities that may not immediately strike you as useful in such a role will start to reveal themselves as important and enriching to your experience as a leader.

At the end of the day, there is no cookie-cutter approach to becoming a great leader. While you can allow other leaders to inspire you along the way, the only path to becoming a true leader is to find what makes you, you.