On the first day of Aurora 2018/19 I nervously walked into a cavernous conference room with about 200 others to start my leadership journey. I was struggling to see myself as a ‘leader’ and was also concerned as to whether I even belonged on the course. While these are concerns that are shared by many, as a trans woman, these concerns take on a life of their own.
I need not have worried. The first group exercise was to discuss imposter syndrome and whether we felt that we ‘belonged’ on a leadership course, and whether we even felt like leaders or could be leaders. When it was my turn to speak I mentioned that, in my case, I had other layers of insecurity to deal with. Transitioning two years earlier had caused me to completely re-evaluate myself and I knew that while I felt more secure as a person, I had lost my sense of identity as a professional, let alone as a leader. The latter felt very distant indeed.
Talking with my group, it was clear that none of us felt that we were ‘leaders’, that we were all as nervous as each other and that me being trans was not, and should never be an issue.
Later that day, we were treated to a talk by the awe-inspiring Melanie Eusebe. When I say talk, it was more like being bathed in her presence as she strode up and down the room. Her story was one of survival and being seen, not being ashamed of her back-story but rather accepting that the dark parts of our past are not stains, they are part of our identity. If we can accept our back-story rather than hold it over ourselves, it has no power over us. Not only that but our story is our brand and we can power forward because of it rather than hold ourselves back. Surviving is powerful. It is, in its own way, leadership.
While Melanie’s experience is very different from my own, her passion and story of survival connected with me very deeply. I left that day feeling strangely energised and tired at the same time. Yes, I was worried about all the work from the course and the inevitable email inbox the following day. Yes, I was tired after the group work and mental energy but I also felt invigorated, empowered, stimulated.
I left with some powerful messages from that day:
- women often present an inferior status through our body language and tone of voice. Stand tall. Realise that you belong where you are. Project confidence and people are more likely to follow.
- “But I do not feel confident, I am quaking inside.” Nobody can see what is going on inside. Take a deep breath. Slow your delivery down a bit. Smile. All of these actions are often read by the audience as the very confidence you think you lack.
- gravitas - we are often told that women lack gravitas. No, we do not. Gravitas = Authority. We use this outside of work all the time. We can learn to use the same skills that project the authority to silence a pack of Brownies when at work to project authority.
- image – our image should be authentic. All those things in our personal history that we are not proud of, they are part of us yet we carry on. They are evidence of strength and resilience. They make us interesting. Embrace them.
- women lead differently to men BUT WE CAN LEAD. Many of the traditionally feminine traits that we are told are a disadvantage as a leader can be strengths. Yes, we tend to be more thoughtful and empathetic but these yield good decisions.
- interruptions – women are often talked over. Do not be afraid to say firmly, but politely “Excuse me, I had not finished. If you see someone else being talked over, get in the habit of butting in and saying “Excuse me, I think that they had more to say on the subject.”
- amplification – when you hear a good idea in the room, echo it and amplify it. You will create allies so that when you have an idea worthy of discussion, your idea will be amplified. Pay forward on good behaviours and they will be paid back to you later.
- leadership – in the past, leadership programmes for women tried to tell women to “be more man”. Aurora taught us to “be more yourself”. Women can, and do, lead. We do it differently and that is every bit as valid.
Identity, Impact and Voice was just one day on this amazing programme but it had the most impact on me. It helped me find my identity and voice as a professional and a leader.
Rosie Russell is Campus Health and Safety Manager, Western General and Royal Edinburgh Hospital Campuses, University of Edinburgh.
Read more about Aurora, Advance HE`s leadership development initiative for women and those who identify as a woman.