“Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”
– Maya Angelou
I recently asked two close friends of mine, both women in leadership positions, what their thoughts were on women in power, and I was struck by the dichotomous nature of their responses.
Woven throughout were two themes: Challenges unique to women and a central focus on “other.”
Two Women Leading the Way
Lauren C. Anderson is an international security and crisis management expert and former FBI Executive. She is the Founder and CEO of LC Anderson International, an international consulting business. She is passionate about and committed to investing in women leaders and youth around the world to reduce conflict and to help address economic disparities.
When asked about her experiences as a female in various leadership positions, she described one of the first challenges she faced as one of the first women on an FBI SWAT team– scrutiny over whether or not she could perform her job, literally, because she was a woman.
She immediately followed this by describing the key attributes to her success: Tremendous enthusiasm for her profession and her work, an abiding commitment to integrity and honesty, commitment to helping others, and a living curiosity that can turn almost anything into a life lesson.
Mufalo Chitam, an immigrant, living in a predominantly white state, started Empower The Immigrant Women, to help other Immigrant women rise to positions of leadership and power in their communities.
Her first words to me were, “To be woman in a place of power, you find yourself always working twice as hard first to prove your worth and secondly to keep your place.”
It was her passion to help others, however, that fueled her commitment to the fight as well as a deep devotion to herself, her own creative vision, and a refusal to be defined by others.
It seems counterintuitive to suggest that if you want to rise to a position of power rather than to work longer, harder, join more committees, and book more meetings, it would be more advantageous to create more relaxed space for you to listen to yourself more, care for yourself more, and authentically care more for those around you.
There is an overwhelming amount of positive psychology research, however, that suggests exactly this. For more on this, listen to this great psychology podcast interview with Dr. Scott Barry Kaufmann, psychologist, author, and Scientific Director of the Science of Imagination Project at the Positive Psychology Center and Dr. Emma Seppala, Science Director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University and a leading expert on health psychology, well-being, and resilience.
The Sucess Trap
Most of us buy into the very popular myth that in order to be high achieving individuals, (and particularly high achieving women), we must:
- Work around the clock
- Garner unwavering focus
- Embrace the fast paced work/life style
- Be self critical
- Be constantly “on”
- And look out for ourselves, first and foremost
We live in a culture in which “overextending ourselves” is the new norm. These overextended lifestyles only bring us further from success and from embodying our greatest empowered selves.
It’s a misconception that in order to be successful we must postpone our happiness. Regardless of gender, if we take care of our well-being first, success will follow.
There’s a tremendous amount of research being done on the correlation between well-being and success. Focus is absolutely key, but studies show we are more focused when we create space for reflection and mindfulness. Check out this Huffington Post article on A Positive Psychology Approach to Success.
We pay a huge price when we heed such stress driven lifestyle. Stress takes a huge toll on us mentally, emotionally, and physically. Stress can trigger chemical changes to our brain that make us more irritable and harm our brain’s memory.
Stress can contribute to lost volume in the brain’s medial prefrontal cortex- the area associated with emotional and cognitive impairment. It can prevent the development of new neurons in the hippocampus – our brain’s center for emotion, memory, and central nervous system.
Stress elicits our fight or flight response, inhibiting our ability to take in new information and connect with our prefrontal cortex to make decisions. Our focus centers on ourselves and we are unable to be present and fully connect with those around us. Stress to an unhealthy level inhibits all these functions and attributes essentially to accomplishing the goals we set for ourselves.
As women in leadership positions we are living in a world that is still predominantly patriarchal and face the dual challenge of remaining dedicated to our goals, while also fighting prejudice, scrutiny, and the feeling that we need to work twice as hard to keep our place. Rather than working harder, rougher, and becoming more macho, perhaps we mind the research and fiercely dedicate ourselves to gratitude, kindness, compassion and self-awareness.
“Don’t just climb the ladder of success – a ladder that leads, after all, to higher and higher levels of stress and burnout – but chart a new path to sucess, remaking it in a way that includes not just the conventional metrics of money and power. But a third metric that includes well-being, wisdom, wonder and giving, so that the goal is not just to succeed but to thrive.”
– Arianna Huffington