Focused action: leadership strategies for high-performance women (Part 4)
Finally, everyone has a part of their psychology intimately interested in action, duty, significance. This part of our psychology is where things get done, where boundaries are set, where we exercise our power and put our head down and bum up. When we have a clear sense of our vision and purpose and values, it is this part of us that is “in service”, aligned, loyal and disciplined and can also anaesthetise us to pain so that we can push through. Many EA/PAs have experienced this: starting work early, working through lunch, not taking breaks and finally finishing at 6pm or 7pm, exhausted, but somehow satisfied that they “got it done”. This is a real trap for EA/PAs because of the nature of their role: they are often expected to action their boss’s decisions, to follow up, manage an ever changing diary and be a part of crises as they emerge.
This part of our psychology has 2 unique but related energies: power and resilience. Power is that explosive “get-up-and-go” feeling that compels us to move, to act. EA/PAs through the nature of their role are intimately involved with high-profile projects, activities and people around which there is already a high level of action. This is something that EAs/PAs can really use to their advantage – this relationship with the power-brokers means that they can tap into it in order to progress a variety of personal, professional and organisational ideas.
Resilience is that part of us that hangs on, hangs in there, does not give up. It enables us to grit our teeth and put up with a certain level of pain and discomfit in order to reach the outcome. Stereotypically in our culture, men are perceived to be better able to cope with pain, however there is a growing body of research that identifies that women have higher pain thresholds. Also, women who are mothers can draw on an amazing, life-changing experience that required significantly high levels of resilience: child-birth, particularly those mothers that chose a natural birth. Few men can draw on such an experience.
In order to make it through any difficult, traumatic or painful experience, we “block out” certain aspects of our experience. We set a boundary in place to protect. Boundary setting is a normal and healthy function of our psychology. We set boundaries all the time, simply through the act of saying “no”. This can sometimes be a challenge for EA/PAs who are often expected to perform a variety of functions and duties that they might otherwise say no to.
This can be a significant dilemma. Saying no to your boss is about confronting the established power structure. It can have an impact on your relationship and sense of belonging. It can be threatening because we might look foolish. However, we have to question the deeper and longer-term impact of saying yes to something that does not align with who you are, what you want and where you are trying to get to. The trap many of us fall into is black or white thinking – also known as the tyranny of the OR: it’s either good or bad; black or white; half-full or half-empty. This sort of thinking doesn’t help us to become good leaders – in fact, all it does is reinforce limited beliefs and low innovation.
The questions to ask are: how can we challenge the established power structure AND say no without destabilising it? How can we say no to our boss and others AND maintain a good relationship and sense of belonging? How can we ask foolish questions AND be wise? How can we put ourselves first AND support others?
These are big questions, particularly for women. In our culture, women are often expected to be the pleaser, to do everything for everyone else and put their needs last. And this makes sense for women who are mothers: the vast majority of the early child-rearing years requires significant sacrifice and putting babies’ and children’s needs first. 5 years of putting other peoples’ needs first creates mental and behavioural habits that can be hard to change. Change requires power to act and resilience to keep on acting.
Questions like the ones posed above do not have simple, easy to quip answers. They need to be held onto as part of an ongoing leadership journey. Questions like this create amazing leaders, so the trick is to not let go of them when faced with noise, distraction and discomfort.