The essential leadership survival tip for women!

There you are in a leadership role. The role you have dreamt of, but reality is kicking in. You feel lonely, out of the loop, insecurity is creeping in and to be honest, you are just not enjoying it as much as you thought you would. It’s all starting to feel like hard work.

You feel a new caution and catch yourself thinking: ‘Can I still have a chat, or join in a joke?’. That makes you doubt yourself and the next day you can’t help but notice that the conversation suddenly stops at the water cooler when you approach. You feel you no longer have someone to share your concerns with. People-issues are a definite no-go, as you can’t break confidentiality. But even sharing other issues or doubts with colleagues is impossible, as you don’t want to come across as insecure. Oh, if you just had someone to talk to, someone that would understand. You stare out of the window and doubt your decision to step-up, you feel isolated, the entire work-situation is dragging you down, making it tiring and feel like hard work most days.

Guess what? Here’s the news: You are not alone.

Many women have similar thoughts and feelings when they are promoted. Often, they don’t enjoy their leadership position much and are happy to give it up after a while. But, not all women do. Some find a way to make it work, and I will let you know their secret of survival.

You can have fun and be the top dog, just like men, and it’s not even that hard to do once you know how it works.

Unlike men, women don’t thrive on hierarchy. What you need to know first, before I can go on and tell you what will help you survive, is a key fact. It is something you may have known all along. But perhaps it’s not something you have heard said aloud much, especially not in a business context.

The key fact is that men and women are different; different in their looks, their biology, brain and hormones.

The key to understanding your feelings of isolation and loneliness is that women have a different way of finding security. Women need affirmation and compliments to feel secure, and they do not find this at the top. This isn’t some sort of sad thing, that makes you a weakling and it certainly doesn’t mean women are inferior. It’s just how we are built. And it’s to do with hormones and the way we compete with other women.

Let me explain.

Women have a higher level of the hormone oxytocine – even from before birth. This hormone enables girls to compete on ‘being nice’, i.e. the nicest girl is most popular. It’s not so clear and visible, though, where you are in the hierarchy of girls. So girls are constantly evaluating where they, – and their peers – are, and they do this by ‘gossip’. Getting confirmation and compliments from their friends shows them they are still popular and safe. After all, no one will attack a friend. Men also have a strong need to feel secure. Yes, really, just like us. However, they feel most secure when they are strongest and best.

Let me explain that one too.

Men have a higher level of testosterone. This hormone enables boys to compete for status and a top position. Boys feel secure when they know who the top dog is and what their own place in the hierarchy is. They feel best when they are the top dog, themselves. After all it’s much less likely people will attack the top dog. So men seek security in social prestige, rather than in friendships. A top position makes him feel safe, his authority and status make it difficult to be attacked. Moreover, men tend to take the attack as ‘coming with the job’. In practice it works like this: When in a top position a man has to deal with jealous men around him, he can handle this, as he thinks: ‘of course you are jealous, as I have a bigger car and earn more than you’.

Women also have to deal with jealousy, but she thinks ‘can’t we still stay be friends?’ (These insights are based on the academic research and book: The beauty of difference, by Dr. Martine F. Delfos, so far only available in Dutch) Find the right girlfriends – your network of peers. Now you know your feelings of isolation are normal. You are just looking for ways to feel safe and secure, a basic need for any human being. Everyone else needs it too. This is fine, and it certainly is nothing to be ashamed of. It is simply a very strong and elemental need in each person. It means though that ignoring it, and just getting on with the job – like an ice-queen – isn’t going to be easy and will probably take a lot of energy. This is what drags you down, gives you feelings of insecurity and makes you no longer enjoy your job.

So here’s what you need to do in 2 simple steps:

  1. Don’t expect to be friends with the people in your team. Don’t even try. Be their boss, that’s what they need you for. They need your support, your feed-back, your understanding, your inspiration and guidance as a boss. To succeed you need to learn that you can be secure even if not everyone likes you. It may help to remember that being a boss is not a popularity contest. Think of it as being a parent: your children aren’t always going to like you, but you do it with their best interests at heart and when they grow up they will be grateful. The same will be true for your team members. Trust me.
  2. Get a network of people with similar status Next, what you need to do is create a peer group; peers that can be your safe and secure haven; that will offer you a place where you can vent, gossip and turn for advice. But please be aware these are NOT your fellow leaders, as most of them will be vying for the top-dog position, and that requires them to be competitive with you. It’s not unkind or unfriendly, it’s just what boys do to feel secure, remember? As soon as you show a sign of weakness, or share an issue, they will take advantage of this in one way or another. They just cannot help themselves. These peers are also NOT your internal sponsor or mentor. Mentors and sponsors are usually in the same organization, and might also be competing with you. Ideally you want them to think you are brilliant. You need them to blow your trumpet to others and get your name up there for the next big client, project, or leadership position.

So who do you need? Who can give you the security you need? What you need is a network of peers, probably from outside the organisation. It usually works best to find people at the same level, and perhaps even in the same industry as you are in. Build your network of peers – one step at a time. This may sound easy, but where do you find these peers? This is not done overnight. Take your time to build it. Join a networking organization that meets regularly, go to a training programme, check on-line groups or find other places where you can meet women at a similar level. You may wish to check out the list of networks and training programmes for women leaders on the Mum & Career website, in addition we here at We Are the City have a great agenda for networking in London. I also know several women that just started their own network when they couldn’t find what they were looking for in their city. This might just be what you need to do. Invite a group of 4-6 interesting female contacts at a similar level as you and go out for dinner monthly.

So now you know. You know what you need and you know that you have to organise it. So just go and do it. Don’t hesitate to spend some time on creating something that is for you. Something that helps you survive and enjoy being a leader so you can be a leader for a long time. Start building now, and see your confidence flourish.

I would love to know what you did to make it less lonely at the top? Did you follow any of the tips above, how did you do it, and how did it work for you?

Mum & Career LogoInge Woudstra, working women’s expert, tutor and researcher. Inge runs MC2 Consulting & Training. She helps organisations retain and boost female talent. She designs and runs powerful events for women’s networks, and you can invite her as a speaker. Her flagship portal Mum & Career shows professional working mothers how to navigate career and family. If your current life and role are making you tired or frustrated and you are ready for change, we would love to invite you to join a Creative Solution Group, a powerful way to become happy in your role in life.

If you would like a fun, powerful event for your women’s network, or are looking for an engaging speaker, please contact her on 0208 948 4381 or at [email protected]

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2 Responses
  1. Absolutely! And interestingly that is often what women find hard. For boys this is more often a natural thing. When my son was 4 he was already managing the hierarchy in his nursery group. Boys are very competitive AND very good friends. They are happy being further down in the hierarchy too, as long as they know where they are.

    Do you mean it’s hard when you are in the team? Are hard when you are the team leader?

  2. Margaret Richmond

    Good tips. I would say it is hard to hold the line between being friendly and team playing when you have to think competitively due to someone making the move to be the boss