What makes a great leader? It’s a question we all have an answer for – we know the sort of qualities we want in someone who’s in charge.
Try coming up with a few adjectives. Now ask yourself – who was in your mind when you were thinking about leadership? JFK, Nelson Mandela, Winston Churchill? How many names did you come up with before you thought of a woman?
This is more than a cute piece of logical puzzling – it demonstrates how difficult we still find it to imagine women in certain roles. And if we can’t imagine it, how can we possibly overcome those hidden psychological barriers to become that very thing? Psychologists and life coaches often tell us that when we want to make positive changes, we should look to people who are already doing what we want to do and living how we want to live. By modelling our behaviour on theirs, the theory goes, we will emulate their success.
We ask a woman at the top of her field to tell us what she has learned.
Sheryl Sandberg, CEO of Facebook
It’s a cliché, but opportunities are rarely offered, they’re seized. During the six years I worked at Google, I hired a team of 4,000 employees. I didn’t know them all personally, but I knew the top hundred or so. What I noticed over the years was that for the most part, the men reached for opportunities much more quickly than the women. When we announced the opening of a new office or the launch of a new project, the men were banging down my door to explain why they should lead the charge. The women, however, were more cautious about changing roles and seeking out new challenges. I often found myself trying to persuade them to work in new areas. I have had countless conversations where women responded to this encouragement by saying, “I’m just not sure I’d be good at that.” Or “that sounds exciting, but I’ve never done anything like it before.” Or “I still have a lot to learn in my current role.” I rarely, if ever, heard those kind of comments from men. Taking initiative pays off. It is hard to visualise someone as a leader if she is always waiting to be told what to do.