The Leadership Journey…a Woman’s Odyssey

Written by: Nancy Coleman Associate Provost and Director of Strategic Growth Initiatives at Wellesley College 

What does leadership mean to you?  There’s almost as many ways to define leadership as there are leaders.  A quick search on Google brings up a mere 784,000,000 pages about leadership.  Searches about what it takes to be a good leader or how to develop leadership skills bring up an equally mind-boggling number of results.

We often hear about charismatic leaders, strategic leaders, authentic leaders, and the ubiquitous transformational leader.  Leaders are born…you either have the skills or you don’t.  No, wait….leadership can be learned?  With so many types of leadership, and conflicting views from experts on what they all mean, how do young adults make sense of it all, and how can they cultivate their own leadership approach?

Women have an added challenge in the leadership arena, stemming from what social scientists call the double bind or ambivalent sexism. When women face ambivalent sexism, they sometimes have to choose between being liked but not respected, or being respected but not liked. In many cases, women who adhere to traditional female roles may be liked, but not seen as high achievers.  Or on the opposite end of the spectrum, more assertive characteristics can be perceived as objectionable.  What is the best way for women to lead to avoid this bias?

In truth, there’s not one best way to lead.  In today’s globally connected, fast-paced world, there’s rarely one person at the top making the ‘leadership decisions’.  Instead, in successful enterprises, both formal and informal leaders collaborate to drive decisions, change, innovation and forward progress.  In fact, leadership approaches change according to the individual, the industry and the global climate.  Our world isn’t static, and leadership shouldn’t be, either.  Leadership is much more than a position, it’s a state of mind, and it evolves on its own individual journey from person to person.

Evolving one’s own point of view about leadership is a process.  We often see young women stepping up to show their leadership skills without even realizing that’s what they are doing. Activities that support building community; mentoring or developing another person; helping someone succeed, or offering suggestions to improve a process or the way things get done are just a few examples of informal, but important leadership.

Better support and guidance is needed for young women to support the cultivation of leadership skills that are authentic, true to the individual and supportive of the whole self.  At Wellesley College, we are proud of our strong history and heritage of educating women leaders in all industries, and across many countries of the globe.  In the spirit of this tradition, we have developed the Wellesley Contemporary Women's Leadership Program, which will help undergraduate women begin to craft their leadership journeys. Offered for 5 weeks over the summer, the program is built upon a strong liberal arts foundation, first reading and analyzing works about gender and diversity, and then learning about women in the workforce.  Concurrently, students engage in a variety of self-reflective and experiential activities designed to build confidence and commitment to their own leadership odyssey.

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Nancy Coleman is Associate Provost and Director of Strategic Growth Initiatives at Wellesley College. Her own leadership journey continues to evolve.