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Rethinking Leadership for Women: Five Ways to Improve Self-Awareness

23/09/2015 11:26 BST | Updated 22/09/2016 10:12 BST

Is ambition a dirty word for women? A fascinating study by TIME and Real Simple unpicks the question with the help of a number of successful women, some of whom have 'dropped out' of high-powered jobs before reaching the corner office.

Take Shelley Wright Brindle, who recently left HBO after 25 years. "You get to a certain point in your career, and you're like 'Are you kidding me?' Women start out equally ambitious, but men are still the drivers of what success looks like. People say, 'Why aren't there more women CEOs?' and the answer, if you ask me, is because they don't want to be-with a big but, because of how those jobs are currently defined."

Younger men and women increasingly see traditional paths to power as inflexible and unwieldy. They want more opportunity to bring the 'whole person' to work.

But not every workplace or system has caught up with the ideal. Child care costs can be a problem for all but the highest earners -- and if you're one of those high-earners, it's likely at the expense of time with family. We all have to make trade-offs, but the compromises that wear women out are those where they have no say.

Whose career is it anyway?

Sure, there are high-profile, high earning women - think Sheryl Sandberg, Angela Ahrendts, Helena Morrissey - who appear to be in the driving seat. But what works for others may not be what works for you. The TIME study suggests women aren't making conscious choices to get ahead, so much as following a prescribed route to... what?

As 25-year-old Angela Su says: "I strive hard to do well at my job, but toward what end? I guess to be happy or live a good life, but I'm still struggling to define what a good life means. Ambition is like the end goal, and that's the kind of thing that I'm suddenly questioning. What am I being driven toward?"

Often, we're so fixated on getting to the next milestone, we don't stop to consider whether we're still on the right road. We've got responsibilities, bills to pay, deadlines to meet, not to mention others' expectations. It can take a drastic event to stop us in our tracks and take stock.

And when we do, how do we determine the best way forward? Purposeful planning. It's something that should be on every college curriculum, argues the late Scott Dinsmore in his TED talk on finding work you love. "There's no major in university on passion and purpose and career. I don't know how that's not a required double major... "

Acting with purpose starts with self-knowledge - another practice that would be well taught at school. Self-awareness can take a lifetime, but there are some ways to improve it:

Find your strengths, acknowledge your weaknesses. We all have biases and assumptions that can block our progress, or attitudes that affect how we treat others. Some of our most embedded beliefs can be wrong. If you're can't pinpoint any weakness in yourself, think about what irritates you in others: we tend to magnify the faults of others that we see in ourselves.

Remember, we're not necessarily the best judges our own behaviour, as Daniel Kahneman and Daniel Gilbert have both pointed out. Self-awareness won't necessarily wipe out your weaknesses. But it can make you more aware of your foibles -- and more understanding of others.

Determine your values, what you accept as right and wrong -- as Dinsmore puts it, know your soul so you don't sell it for something you don't care about. Don't become so hung up on authenticity that you're unbending in the face of opposition. Mindfulness training can help you become centred and 'present'. Or write a manifesto, as this Lifehacker post suggests.

Learn to listen. "The premium on accurate and careful listening has simply disappeared," says sound consultant Julian Treasure. We are impatient, desensitized and less able to hear "the quiet, the subtle, the understated". Yet conscious listening is essential to building understanding and connection with others.

Like Dinsmore with purpose, Treasure believes listening should be taught in schools. He suggests these five exercises to improve the quality of how you listen:

  1. Silence - aim for three minutes a day to 're-set your ears'..
  2. Separate strands - when you're in a noisy environment, try to pick out different conversations. How many can you hear?
  3. Savour the ordinary - enjoy mundane sounds such as car horns or tumble dryers. They are the "hidden choir... around us all the time", says Treasure.
  4. Play with your listening position. Like tuning in and adjusting a radio dial, you can move from one type of listening to another. Active listening calls for some engagement with the speaker - a nod or the occasional assent. With empathetic listening, the aim may be to make the speaker feel safe and 'heard'. With critical listening, we're assessing the value of what we're hearing, whereas expansive listening is "creative...chatting for the sake of connection, brainstorming or listening without an agenda."
  5. Practise RASA - Receive; Appreciate (nods, uh-huhs); Summarise; Ask.

(There are more active listening tips here.)

Find your voice - this is one way to get an idea of how others see you. It's also a perceived weak spot for many women. A female exec told me that every young woman she mentors asks for help with speaking and presentation. The best approach is often just to get talking. This HBR article has useful hacks to help you speak up in workplace scenarios. And Caroline Goyder has some very simple tips for improving your speaking technique.

Reflect and learn from your experiences. Assess decisions you've made -- or get someone to help you look at them honestly. If you keep a journal, read it back -- blind spots or biases may jump out at you on second read. To be a conscious leader means to be constantly learning and reviewing your responses to specific situations.

Next up: Finding your purpose.