Becoming a Leader

This week I took part in a panel aimed at young adults who see themselves as future leaders. An interesting, if slightly disquieting experience. My fellow panellists were two young men in their twenties, who had both already done amazing things setting up charities and networks to support the disadvantaged. Inevitably I felt very grey and old. I was tremendously impressed by their energy, their self-awareness, but also their apparent confidence at such an early stage in their careers.  They weren’t afraid to admit to the importance of embracing failure and learning from it, they believed strongly in good communication as being a core part of the role of a leader and, crucially, also kindness. All things with which I could only wholeheartedly agree.

Nevertheless, if I think back to myself in my mid-twenties, leadership was simply not on my horizon. I hadn’t got beyond thinking about how to be a research scientist. When that went sour during my first postdoc in the States, I threw myself into singing in a Sweet Adeline group and baking pumpkin bread for their cake sales, along with sewing my own costume by hand (I had no sewing machine). Domesticity at that point (if only briefly) trumped my unsuccessful scientific career. I certainly took no steps to assert myself even in the choral group – after all, I was a Brit, an outsider to their American ways. And once my research took off again and I started thinking about future positions upon my return to the UK, I was very nervous at the thought of trying to lead a research group. I’m sure that the status I was assigned in a role play at a ‘what to do after your PhD’ course, when I was allocated the committee secretary role and expected to make the virtual tea (of course, I was the only woman in the group), fitted who I thought I was rather better than being leadership material.

I am glad, on this panel, I was not asked one of the questions I was sent in advance as a possibility: ‘How did you begin to see yourself as a leader & champion? Was there a particular moment, or was it something you have always been passionate about?’ I never was, nor do I think I am now, passionate about being a leader. It is something that I have fallen into over the years. It started with inheriting someone else’s large research project, and then taking on another one, also not of my own creation. Having been accused this week of not always regarding myself as ‘agentic’ by a friend, I should say I mean it when I say ‘fallen into’ leadership, but it is nevertheless a choice. I could have said, I will not run someone else’s grant just because they’ve left the country, but then I’d have been turning my back on a wonderful opportunity, not to mention funding for three postdocs (albeit I had to invent projects in a field I had no experience in, as this was when I first strayed into food physics). One should remember one can still be perfectly ‘agentic’ whilst taking advantage of every bit of luck that comes one’s way. Luck, both good and bad, is something we should all acknowledge plays a part in our lives (Michael Sandel’s Tyranny of  Merit discusses this at length, as he addresses the vexed question of meritocracy, a topic I may return to at a later date when I’ve finished reading the book).

Perhaps in this context, one should recall Malvolio’s speech in Twelfth Night Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them’, replacing ‘great’ with the word ‘leader’. Were my co-panellists born as leaders? Is there a gender angle at play, in the way girls are expected to ‘play nicely’ rather than dominate the playground? I suspect the way we bring girls up, the way schools, parents not to mention the media (social and otherwise) influence their attitudes as to what is ‘acceptable’ to their peers and society, does indeed have a role in all this. When I mentioned to a female friend, a leader in her own right, the question ‘when did you first see yourself as a leader’, she guffawed, replying that someone who sets out to be a leader is probably not someone who should be let near a leadership role, citing some of our politicians as examples of how that can go wrong.

So, should we expect men to be more modest, or women more assertive as they consider their roles in society? No doubt the answer is a bit of both. However, this post is prompted not just by the panel I sat on this week, but also by more of my reading matter. I’m currently enjoying a fairly recent biography of Simone de Beauvoir ‘Becoming Beauvoir by Kate Kirkpatrick. Beauvoir’s contribution – one might say leadership – in developing existentialism as a coherent pattern of thought, seems to be being recognized quite late in the day, in part because of how her own published writings (as opposed to her personal writings and diaries) depict things.

Beauvoir famously said ‘”One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” For her, as for many girls growing up, the idea of what is expected of you as a girl, slowly impinges; those cultural aspects and behaviours are what then significantly modify a girl’s natural inclinations. This idea of becoming, of course, lies underneath the whole of Michelle Obama’s book Becoming as she developed from a kid growing up in a poor Chicago neighbourhood, to become the First Lady, with immense presence and charisma and indeed power, but not in the conventional way. Is it chance both these women, of undoubted influence, use that same word ‘becoming’, or does it reflect a deeper truth of how women, past and present, need to find their feet?

If I look back on my timid teenage self, the rather lost mid-twenties post-doc, the young mother who was struggling to balance everything while having that crisis of confidence so commonly found in women who have recently given birth and are battling conflicting personae, did I ever ‘decide I wanted to be a leader’? The answer, for me, has to be no. I suspect Obama would fall into the same camp (think how often she has categorically stated that she doesn’t want to run for political office).  If true gender equality is ever to be achieved, making sure both young men and women feel leadership is equally within their grasp but that there is no requirement for them to aspire to such a role, must surely be part of the altered culture in which we bring up our children. Battling against such aspects of what is now deemed to be ‘toxic masculinity’ (think Bullingdon Club in this case) is just as crucial as enabling women to feel empowered.

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2 Responses to Becoming a Leader

  1. Comme habitude, your thoughtful writing embraces postivity tempered with realism, which to my mind is one of the better ways to be courageous.

    Since being a leader is so thrust upon men and so many men are way too miserable, and for women, their passivity is rewarded instead and they too are unhappy, I decided when I was being groomed for a leadership role decades ago, a role more powerful than my female peers, but way less potent than male peers, I rejected it. Let me, I mused, put my energy into being flexible, in practicing discernment, saying yes or no when appropriate. Fortune is only fortune if you are astute and tuned with yourself to recognize that it is indeed fortunate for you at every different stage in your life which is how I would define agency. As life span, and a more liveable one at that, increases, the stages of anyone’s life will augment in number also. Hopefully this social climate will lessen sanctioned mediocrity (many men live this) and a limbo of passivity (many women live this).

  2. Beppe says:

    Very thoughtful piece and made me thinking of what Plato made Socrates lecturing when describing the perfect republic: the best leader has no interest whatever in leading. In my view leading is like guiding and it only makes sense when a direction is clear, and sometime you know the path better sometime you need to leave others to guide you.
    I’m sure your analysis on women leader is spot on and I hope that my daughters will not subjected to the same bias. However, I can say that for the same playground rules, some of the boys are asked to play nice too, or perhaps this applies to those brought up by feminist mothers 😉

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