Is LEADERSHIP a Dirty Word?

For a wide variety of reasons I have been thinking about leadership recently.  In conversations, professional reading, Twitter chats, professional goal setting and more, the word leadership keeps coming up.  But so does this weird, uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach.  For some reason when I refer to myself as a leader or in a leadership role I feel guilty – maybe I even feel incompetent or unworthy.

But why?

This Ted Talk has been making the rounds again in my professional learning community:

The hesitancy to label yourself a leader resonated with me immediately.  The story is a moving and meaningful reminder of how the smallest actions can have profound and long-lasting reactions.  But the overwhelming concept of leadership is what struck me most.

I have often been called upon to lead.  As a student, as an aquatics supervisor, as an educator, as a school council member and more… but in the past I would never have called myself a leader.

For some reason I thought saying it out loud and about myself was arrogant and some sort of self-indulgent statement that I knew everything and had things all figured out.

The feminist in me assumes this is a socially-constructed gender norm that I struggle to resist.  But not having asked my male counterparts if they feel differently about leadership, I think that may be an oversimplification.  Women and girls are often encouraged to follow not lead or speak up or demand attention or that their voices be heard.  But I know that women of colour face this much more than I do and I know that my privileged life path, including parents who encouraged us to be outspoken advocates for our beliefs and the rights of others, suggests that it cannot simply be a gender-based issue for me.

So as I reflected on this inner leadership debate I noticed something in my behaviour that did not match my inner self-talk.  In recent years, I had taken several bold steps that suggest I do feel comfortable acting as a leader in my own way.

(Brace yourself for a lot of “I” messages here…)

  • I left a workplace that no longer felt encouraging
  • I helped to open 2 new schools
  • I spoke my mind freely in meetings with passion and conviction
  • I have started asking people I admire and trust about obtaining the chance to join committees, lead professional learning, explore new opportunities
  • I started this blog 🙂
  • I have helped my own children and others learn how self-advocate
  • I have made new connections with colleagues and we seek advice and guidance from one another on a daily basis

So maybe leadership is a bigger part of me than I am willing to admit.  And maybe that is because I feel that with leadership comes responsibility. In most workplaces there exists a hierarchical system –  like in a school where we have principals and vice-principals as the official leaders who are well-defined. (And currently I am lucky enough to work for 2 wonderful leaders who show tremendous generosity in trusting our staff to be competent professionals and lead by example not force) But school administration is not the type of leadership I wish to seek and that has often caused me to feel the need to defend that choice.

But what if we start to view ourselves just a little bit differently – what if we all start to embrace the term leadership and the inevitable responsibility that comes along with it?

If we all could accept that we are leaders in our big and small actions each day maybe we could “flatten the hierarchy”* just a little bit.  (*credit to @lisanhart13 for that term)

We could worry less about title and pay grade and worry more about impact and influence and how to use both in a positive way.

We could encourage all our students (regardless of gender identity) to also view themselves as leaders each and every day.

It may also help us be more comfortable asking for our own opportunities to lead and grow, rather than just waiting to be chosen.

So – I am a leader but please remember so are you…


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