Most of us don’t match the stereotype
In 2017, in response to The New Yorker magazine’s cover by French artist Malika Favre, groups of female surgeons began posting pictures of themselves with the hashtag #ThisIsWhatASurgeonLooksLike. (I’m proud that the first group to post included my client, Dr. Heather Logghe.)
Have you ever image searched the word “leader?” If you have, you’ve probably noticed most of the images show pictures of men walking up a mountain, leading a group of other men, or a man standing slightly bigger than everyone else. The image results seldom show women, people of color or other underrepresented people. Apparently, a leadership prerequisite is being a man.
What’s Society’s Image of a Leader?
I’ve asked this question at many of the workshops I lead, and there’s no doubt about it:
In society’s eyes (meaning, in our collective imaginations), a business leader is white, straight, 45-55 years old, about 6’2″, roughly 180 pounds, and fit. He grew up middle- or upper-middle class, went to an Ivy League college, has an M.B.A, and wears very expensive suits.
Of course, we know this is silly. We know that Indra Nooyi, the former CEO of PepsiCo, was born in India and that billionaire media executive Oprah Winfrey is Black and grew up poor.
But do we really disbelieve the pervasive stereotype?
In general, the answer is “no.” And the unconscious belief that we’re not real leaders… not real entrepreneurs… not what a surgeon really looks like — that’s what makes us vulnerable to self-doubt, imposter syndrome, and those nasty self-critical voices in our heads.
What’s Your Image of a Leader?
If someone were to ask you what a leader looks like, would you describe the “standard” American executive — the one that very few of us resemble, but whose rise to the top seems effortless?
Would you describe a “diverse” business leader like Nooyi or Winfrey (and notice how just using that word reinforces our perception that “mainstream” is the opposite of “diverse”)?
I hope that you would describe yourself — and here’s why:
Your Approach to Leadership, and Everything Else, is Unique
You may have heard this quote, which is attributed to Irish playwright and gay icon Oscar Wilde:
Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.
I believe Wilde means that, since you are unique, you might as well embrace being unique. (After all, you can’t be someone else!)
Now, it’s true that the value of your uniqueness isn’t always obvious to others — and especially not if you work for people who don’t recognize excellence when it comes wrapped in a package or speaking a language that’s different from their own.
But your uniqueness is the hand of cards that only you hold. In a very real sense, it is all you’ve got to bargain with in the world.
Your experience — including your family and ethnic background, how you were raised and educated, where you’ve worked, what you’ve struggled with, all the things you’ve learned and observed — gives you a unique perspective that’s the source of unique potential value for your company, your colleagues, and yourself.
What Does a Leader Look Like? You!!
Your challenge is to believe in yourself and your own approach even when — especially when — the world can’t see how valuable it is.
You may not speak like Oprah.
You may not lead like Indra Nooyi.
You may not look like Central Casting’s idea of a business leader.
But you have a skill set… experiences… and insights that no one else in the world can match.
So shut down your inner critic… ignore the Imposter Syndrome… and take your unique brand of leadership for a test drive, today.
Everyone around you will be glad that you did.