Leaders need to be what we can’t see

In 1954, after decades of attempts worldwide, Roger Bannister became the first-ever runner to break the 4-minute mile. Celebrated as the ‘Everest of athletics’, the impossible suddenly became achievable in 3 minutes and 59.4 seconds. 

How long did it take someone to beat his time? Forty-six days. Then, just a year later, three separate runners beat his record in one race. 

What caused this sudden widespread increase in speed? Not a radical physical transformation but a psychological one. The phrase ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ might be a cliche, but that doesn’t mean it’s incorrect; until elite athletes had proof they could break 4 minutes, almost all of them couldn’t.

And before you ask, we’re yet to see a woman join the 4-minute club. Many armchair experts are demonstrating the power of visibility by refusing to believe it’s possible. However, Faith Kipyegon, a 30-year-old mother of one, disagrees. 🏃‍♀️

What does a leader look like?

Close your eyes and picture a leader. What do they look like? It wouldn’t surprise us if your imagination conjured similar results to our Google search:

Many underrepresented groups rarely see themselves portrayed as leaders. This is true even though an ‘underrepresented’ group represents half the population. The movie industry is infamous for reducing women to one-dimensional supporting roles. Women are not only absent from lists of top business leaders, but we also battle assumed demotions. Technology doesn’t help, either. The proliferation of algorithms has led to the proliferation of biases being hardcoded into the internet (*cough* Google *cough*).

Maybe we’re looking at this all wrong

We know you can be what you can’t see; history is littered with examples of firsts. We also know these examples create a much easier path for others to follow: Naomi Osaka may never have picked up a racket had it not been for Serena Williams.

But Naomi Osaka is not Serena Williams; she is Naomi Osaka. She may have been inspired by a phenomenal player, but she forged her own path. And there’s a powrful lesson in this.

Often, Powrsuiters tell us they struggle to see themselves as leaders. They look around and see too few examples of people who look and act like them. They compare their strengths and count themselves short. 

They think they have to be what they can see.

Building your own playbook

We often promote critical leadership skills, such as relationships, feedback, conflict, influence, prioritisation, reflection, etc. These are all great ingredients, but leadership is quite simple: it’s the kind of person others want to follow. And there are as many ways to do that as there are people in the world.

Simone Biles sums it up perfectly: “I’m not the next Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps. I’m the first Simone Biles”. Biles consistently defies the rules: she took a two-year break from a sport you do not take breaks from. She’s simultaneously ‘too old’ to be a gymnast and smashing records. She prioritised her mental health by opting out of the world’s largest sporting stage. 

She’s not trying to be anyone else, in fact she resents the notion

Simone Biles leads as only Simone Biles can, and she’s sending the rest of us an important message: Don’t wait for someone else to run the 4-minute mile, walk it in 20 minutes, jog two miles, or boycott running altogether in favour of jazzercise. 

In other words, leadership isn’t about following an existing playbook; it’s about building your own.

Who are you as a leader?

We know women can achieve positions of power and influence. Oprah, Sheryl Sandberg, Michelle Obama, and Jacinda Ardern are famous examples. These women are the Roger Bannisters of the professional world; they’ve shown us it’s possible.

Yes, we have too few examples of women leaders. It’s harder to imagine yourself at the table when you know 90% of CEOs and all nine spots in Google’s list of ‘top leaders’ are men. These things are true, but they have no bearing on your ability. 

Whether in your first-ever career role or an experienced professional, you should be looking around and not seeing anyone like you. It means you are leading as only you can.

Take action

Lock 10 minutes in your calendar. Build evidence of your leadership abilities by answering these three questions: 1/ What are you most passionate about at work? 2/ When have you stepped up and spoken out? 3/ When have you influenced others with your perspective?

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