Female leadership has undergone a major facelift in the past few decades. No longer does being a strong leader and being a woman mean that you have to shake off all traces of femininity. No longer does softness and empathy equal weakness.
Independent Educational Psychologist and all-round leading expert in Emotional Well-Being and Mental Health for youths and parents Dr Veronica Roberts recalls growing up in the early days of females rising in the 1980’s when women leaders needed to front with masculine traits.
“Whilst female leadership was beginning to be noticed, it was also heavily linked to the Iron Lady herself, along with mad shoulder pads and essentially being more of a man than a man,” she said.
Dr Roberts refers to one of the seminal political figures of the 20th century, British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, who was known for her courage, resolve and fierce political agenda. Dubbed the Iron Lady, she was said to have paved the way for women throughout the 1980’s, forcing her way into the men’s club:
“It involved hardening your edges, learning how to push, dominate and never show weakness. This created an intimidating image and from my perspective. I didn’t measure up to the task, so I ruled leadership out of my options.”
However, after becoming a parent, something changed for Veronica. Like many new parents, she became plagued with doubt, guilt and ‘what if’ thoughts that were holding her back. As a highly trained psychologist, the mummy guilt beared down hard on her.
“Part of me believed that as a trained child psychologist, I should know what I was doing all of the time and the perfectionist in me also screamed that I should be doing it perfectly all of the time. I judged myself so harshly for every perceived error I made and felt so incredibly vulnerable when I struggled in public. I felt like everyone would think I was a terrible mother, and rubbish at my job as well.”
True leaders often don’t want to lead – they are called to lead. The vision leads them and they lead the people towards it.”
Amidst the home front chaos of feeding routines, nappy changes, preparing to go back to work and utter exhaustion, Veronica stumbled across a book titled, Things I wish I’d known – women tell the truth about motherhood, edited by Victoria Young. A collection of anecdotal parenting mishaps and adventures, sharing, laughing and proving that we are all human, this book lessened the guilt within Veronica. She began thinking about how she could promote this fresh perspective and encourage other parents to step up and support each other through all the ‘parenting mishaps’ of the everyday.
“[The book] made me realise that I wasn’t alone in feeling this way and, it did not make me a terrible mother. I started to wonder if there was a way of spreading that experience to others.”
Her driving force behind taking on a new style of leadership came from a group of women. Veronica joined the One of many “Lead The Change” program, a 12 month deep dive into a new paradigm of leadership. As part of the program, Veronica was challenged to take on a charitable or social justice project, and the I Know… movement was born. I know… is a movement about building upon the collective support between parents.
It’s about those ‘moments’ we all experience as parents; where we can feel overwhelmed, lost, unsure what to do, and alone. In those moments it can feel like the world is watching, and potentially judging us.
The idea behind i know… is that members can wear a badge that says ‘i know…’ It’s a visual symbol that they know what it’s like, they get it, they’re not judging us and they’re willing to help if they can and opens up the conversation and shows other parents they are on the same team. The aim is that those moments of vulnerability, instead of becoming feelings of fear and shame, might become moments of connection, empathy and compassion.
Veronica’s Facebook page nurtures a community of parents who have the open-mindedness to accept that things don’t always go to plan – and that is ok.
Veronica was guided by the principles of positive psychology and narrative therapy when setting up the tone and content of her Facebook page. She encourages parents to share their own experiences of when someone helped them turn a ‘moment’ of potential parenting chaos or overwhelm around.
“In a nutshell, positive psychology recognises that we can get stuck in a negative bias that easily bogs us down and reduces our energy, creativity and problem-solving skills. In contrast, when we focus on the positive aspects of our lives, it inspires greater freedom in thinking, personal motivation and relationships,” she said.
“Narrative therapy ties into this by emphasising the power of the stories we tell ourselves – both about our lives, our personality and other people.These stories can paint us as the heroine, witch, bitch, victim, martyr and when tightly woven and unquestioned can trap us into a particular role. But when we see it as just a story, we gain the power to rewrite it.”
The most important part about the group is the ability for each follower to support one another, essentially creating many leaders in the one global forum. Sharing stories is a powerful way to help rewrite the narrative on a collective level, not just personally, and as a whole, this can make a massive difference to the community.
“I know… asks others to step up in a very practical way within those everyday moments and help another parent out if they see them having a tough time – even if it’s just with a reassuring smile.”
“By focusing on positive encounters, we can drown out the negative experiences many of us face as parents where someone ‘tut tuts’ our tantruming child or decides to tell us where we are going wrong in their eyes.”
“The truth is, we can’t stop those people from forming their own judgement, but we can drown out their negative noise with our own positive stories.”
Veronica has learned so much about leadership and how the softness inherent to women is a very positive attribute in all leadership roles and, in fact, shows great strength. Leadership comes in many shapes and forms, and you don’t have to know all the answers to lead, nor do you have to do it all on your own.
“Someone once said to me, ‘true leaders often don’t want to lead – they are called to lead. The vision leads them and they lead the people towards it,’ and when it was put this way, I suddenly felt like it was possible for me.”
Leading today is about speaking your vision with clarity and conviction, which greatly inspires people and when it feels overwhelming, call on your network to support you.
Veronica’s husband is one of her greatest supporters and proudly wears his I Know… badge to work, sparking interest in people he meets throughout the day.
“When he explains the concept, the overwhelming response he gets from other men is recognition that it is needed, respect, gratitude and enthusiasm. It may have taken a woman to found I Know…but it’s message is for men just as much as women,” Veronica said.
“Because we are women, we can see and feel what isn’t working in a patriarchal society. This places us in a powerful position to identify alternative ways of being, organising and doing things. With courage, we voice those alternatives and start making them happen for the benefit of all, not just women.”