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President’s Message: Lessons (and Lesions) in Leading Women

“Changing the world, like living your own life well, requires a sense of purpose, the courage to pursue it and the preparedness to risk the most public of failures. Nothing big was ever achieved by cowering.”
– Julia Guillard

A few weeks after I joined the SCWO Board 6 years ago, I felt like Alice through the Looking Glass. I realized that being on an all-women board, supported by an all-women secretariat, representing essentially all-women organisations was a daunting task indeed, and required some readjustment in strategy and approach.

Lest I start receiving brick-bats about being unsupportive of women leaders, let me be clear that I am totally wedded to supporting the women’s movement and am proud of what women leaders achieve with all the challenges faced by us. But I must confess that prior to coming onto the SCWO Board, I had, in the main, worked and volunteered in mixed organisations. These were mainly law-related, which also meant they tended to be male-dominated, so I found myself having to look through a different lens whilst being led by women and subsequently, leading them myself.

These past 6 years have given me the privilege of working with and meeting many extraordinary women whose courage and generosity have inspired me. So I felt that for my final President’s Message, I should leave you with a legacy of the wisdom I have received and the challenges I have overcome. I hope these lessons that I have learnt will help other women leaders live more purposefully, speak more courageously and become more powerful catalysts for the change our world so needs.

• Be the leader you aspire to be.

Great leaders do not lead because of the power or position they have been given, but because of how they have used the power that has always resided within them. Likewise, you do not need a title to be a leader, and you do not need to wait for permission to step up. You just need the courage to take action and the patience to wait for others to realise you are a force to be reckoned with.

I realised this when I saw members of my Board stepping up to lead even though they were not necessarily endowed with a title or responsibility. This can be as simple as just volunteering when no one else is able. On the other hand, it is also common to see people do what I call `running on the spot’ – looking busy and exhausted and using much effort, but not actually going anywhere; there are also those who put up an appearance or say something simply to be recorded as having said something. Let’s all try to be the former.

• Don’t be afraid to ask for support

This was a really important lesson for me. There is an African proverb that says “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” I had been used to doing things by myself, but realised how important it is to ask for help when needed. I found this help often at hand when I reached out, and it came in many forms. Sometimes, it took the form of someone just reminding you to rest or sleep. I wish to thank my seniors and mentors for their wise counsel and concern.

While it is easy to be too busy to take time to network and connect with other women who may not have any direct relevance to your work or business, investing time in building relationships and creating a support network can prove invaluable, particularly when the going is tough and the best path forward is unclear. On this, I was heartened by leaders of our many member organisations inviting me to your events and providing me with the opportunity to understand your work. I also appreciated your attendance and interest in SCWO’s work.

• Make your voice heard.

Conversations and consultations are the currency in any boardroom. While women are naturally skilled at forging connections, we can also be hesitant about anything that might disrupt them. Being afraid of rocking the boat, causing offence or looking foolish, the temptation to play it safe can be strong. On the other hand, being willing to speak up and lay your vulnerability on the line, to respectfully say what you think, to ask for what you want and challenge the consensus or give critical feedback, not only earns you respect as a straight shooter, it wins trust and exponentially expands your ability to influence outcomes down the road. I was pleased that I could always count on my Board Members to provide valuable feedback and push us out of our comfort zones. But they did so without any motive to undermine or criticize for the sake of criticizing. That takes courage and maturity, and I appreciated their honesty.

• Confront your fear, but don’t let it paralyze you.

While women may be innately more risk averse than men, that does not give us an excuse not to take risks. Indeed, failing to take on challenges that make us vulnerable to failure can be a far more risky proposition than taking a leap of faith over the fear and self-doubt we often wrestle with. One project that we ventured into is the joint CSO report for CEDAW. I sincerely hope that it will be something that we can collectively deliver as a sign of solidarity amongst CSOs on the issues.

• Stand your ground and don’t be intimidated.

We must not let ourselves be intimidated by bullies or manipulative behavior. Too often we make assumptions about people that are simply untrue. We then carry those beliefs into our interactions with them, intimidating ourselves and undermining our confidence to connect authentically. I recall 2 occasions where we had faced threats and had to make a difficult judgement call. I am proud to say we did not shy away or back down as we knew that we were doing the right thing. In the end, right prevailed. But standing at the precipice is not easy and it takes courage to make the right call.

• Dare to fail, but never let your failures define you.

This brings me to my next point. There will be times where an initiative fails or falters. If that happens, be honest and see it for what it is. But it is important for the team to stand as one and support one another, instead of playing the blame game. At the end of the day, discrediting your fellow team members only reflects badly on you. It takes compassionate and humanity to look past the failure and to keep the end goal in sight.

• Look for opportunities amidst adversity.

I have found that it is often amidst adversity that we find hidden gems and good qualities in others. It is important not to get distracted by the squeaky wheel and to be able to hear the helpful voice. To achieve great things, you have to take great risks and have the courage to stick to your vision, even when those around you are telling you otherwise. If you work hard enough and believe in what you are doing you can find opportunity regardless of what is happening in the world around you.

• Advocate for yourself. Own your value.

Women are often reticent at self-promotion. We rely on our hard work to win recognition and advance us forward. While humility is a virtue, when overdone it can become a vice that can profoundly limit our opportunities to achieve the goals that inspire us.

In today’s competitive workplace, we have to be willing to let the right people know who we are, what we have done and what we aspire to do in the future. We should also give people visibility of what we do as a coordinating organization. People are not mind readers. We cannot assume they know what we do. We have taken more effort to regularly communicate what we do, connect with members through forums and meetings and speak up in the media on issues that matter to us.

• Forge your own path. Don’t let others’ opinions matter more than your own.

The lesson I have learnt is that when making leadership decisions, not to put what others think ahead of what you think. Be open to their advice, but forge your own path. The reason for this because when the proverbial turd hits the fan, most `advisors’ will be the first to take cover and leave you to deal with the consequences yourself anyway. By questioning your own motives and motivation in making a decision, you will not only be better able to take responsibility for it, you will also not have to waste time resenting your advisors, however well-meaning or otherwise.

• Lift as you climb.

Whether you are a volunteer leading an organization or a full-time manager, every day we have the opportunity to lift and support those around us – to make an introduction, share a resource, or to encourage others to see in themselves possibilities, potential and opportunities they might not see otherwise, to show appreciation or simply pay a deserved compliment.

Every time we do that, we demonstrate the very sort of leadership the world is so hungry to see: compassionate, constructive, courageous, humane and transformational leadership. Leadership that does not require putting down others. Leadership that is driven by serving a cause larger than oneself.

I sincerely wish my successor and the new SCWO Board the very best to leading SCWO in the next term.

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