Growing as a Leader

How to step into your power and authority as a woman in leadership

Traveler, there is no path. The path is made by walking.”

Antonia Machado

In May, I felt eager to be presenting to a conference room packed full of women leaders and business owners. In the two hours that followed, many of these women shared their stories and challenges around what was holding them back from stepping into their full power and authority as leaders. Through their honesty and vulnerability, it was as if steppingstones were placed thoughtfully one in front of the other. A path forward began to emerge.

Here are five common challenges and how we can learn from them.

Nothing is a greater impediment to being on good terms with others than being ill at ease with yourself.”

Honoré de Balzac, novelist, The Human Comedy

1. Lack of Confidence

Many years ago, as a young emerging leader, I had intense thoughts of self-doubt: “I’m not good enough. I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know what to do or how to do it.” These thoughts ran amok in my head like a never-ending ticker tape. 

It turns out, I wasn’t alone. Many women leaders experience self-doubt or imposter syndrome (believing that someone will discover they aren’t fit for the job). As a result, they lack confidence in their own decision-making and instead seek validation from others to compensate. 

This lack of confidence can also spill over into engaging with and building their teams. When we lack trust in ourselves, it’s more challenging to lead our teams.

Steppingstone tip: When I feel like I’m not doing enough or doubting myself and my capabilities, I pause and reflect on my successes and accomplishments. I’m often astounded with how much I have done, or even small successes I have achieved in as little as the past 12 hours. This gives me a boost and immediate shift in perspective that motivates me to progress through my day.

You can have brilliant ideas, but if you can’t get them across, your ideas won’t get you anywhere.”  

Lee Iacocca

2. Struggle with Communication

Women leaders often struggle with expressing their thoughts, standing up for themselves and speaking up.

One woman leader at a nonprofit organization explained, “I would try to make the dialogue perfect in my head before sharing — by which time, of course, the subject matter had come and gone. To my surprise and relief, when I began to dare myself to start speaking, people started adding to my thoughts and ideas. The more I shared, the easier my thoughts came because I was bringing an energy of contribution instead of worrying about a perfect delivery. When my ideas or thoughts ignited great conversations, leading to great outcomes, over time the conversations became more important than my initial fears.”

Steppingstone tip: Be willing to share your imperfect thoughts and ideas despite fear. Then sit back and notice how your thoughts contribute to the conversation as a whole. 

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Bring your whole self to the experience. Because the more we do that, the more that people get to see that, the more comfortable everybody’s gonna be with it.”

Bozoma Saint John

3. Conflict with Being Powerful

Strong women can struggle to navigate being powerful. They might find themselves swinging from one of two extremes: being the peaceful warrior, always striving to do the right thing because they don’t like conflict or fear not being liked; to becoming the proverbial exploding doormat when their frustrations become unbearable.

Women leaders often feel like they have to hold themselves back and tiptoe around others to avoid hurting feelings. They worry about presenting themselves as insensitive or brash. This leads to a build-up of frustration.

Steppingstone tip: Strive for balance by finding your unique middle way. A business owner in the retail industry shared, “The first time someone does something wrong, it’s on them. The second time it happens, it’s on me. This means I need to address the issue while I can still communicate in a calm, thoughtful way — and not wait for my frustration (and the continued ‘misses’) to pile up too much.”

We don’t have to wait until we are on our deathbed to realize what a waste of our precious lives it is to carry the belief that something is wrong with us.”

Tara Brach, Psychologist

4. Drive to Be Perfect

I grew up with an intense need to make it look like I had it all together. I avoided sharing vulnerable feelings or letting others know when I was struggling. I often felt exhausted at the end of the day from forcing a smile on my face, and from running myself too hard with unrealistic to-do lists, trying to do everything perfectly and to accomplish more than was humanly possible. 

Steppingstone tip: Without putting blame on our parents, research has shown that early childhood experiences may play a part in the development of perfectionism. Some parents unwittingly hold unrealistically high expectations for their children or give them excessive praise and attention for what they accomplish. Knowing this can provide a new perspective, where we recognize that self-worth is based on who we are, not what we do.

Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change.”

Wayne W. Dyer, author

5. Seen As a Support Person

It is not uncommon for some women to feel stereotyped as being in a support role, rather than acknowledged in their leadership positions. Women leaders may find their male counterparts looking to them to handle the more societally assumed gender roles (like being asked to set up the conference room or get the coffee), resulting in resentment and disempowerment. In male-dominated work environments and industries, it’s not uncommon for customers to ask a woman leader for the person in charge. 

If women are in a business partnership with a male (or masculine) spouse, they may feel like their spouse gets all the credit and accolades for running the business, and that people turn to their spouse for advice and direction.

Stepping stone tip: Unfortunately, stereotyping does exist. While not all women leaders experience it and its impact, for those who do, it won’t disappear. However, we can act and respond. Women in male-dominated environments can help raise awareness. Recognize that everyone has biases, regardless of whether we are aware of them. Take time to explore and decide how you will respond next time an incident occurs.

Our challenges and struggles won’t go away overnight. However, we can continue to transform our challenges by taking the next step, not giving up and staying the course. In the end, it’s only by looking back that we will see the path we created, where there was no path before.