Many of us, myself included, have talked or written about showing up as our true selves, about being authentic. But I want to propose a caveat to that. We don't really want all of the authenticity; we want the good parts, especially in our leaders. Nobody enjoys seeing their leader's insecurity, paranoia, petty gripes and rivalries. We want leaders who inspire us, who we can model our leadership off, leaders who we can respect. The problem is, nobody is those things all of the time, or at least I haven't met such a person yet. So, what to do? If we agree that we are all ~50% awesome ~50% hot-mess, how do we lead authentically?
I like the idea of curating authenticity through the lens of our future self. I've mentioned the inner mentor previously, that quiet voice of wisdom that guides you forward when your yelly inner critic tells you to hold back and play small. Your future self is an imagined version of you, 10-20 years from now; you at a time when all the worries of today are long gone. There's a chapter and guided visualisation to help find her in Tara Mohr's excellent book 'Playing Big' (1), or you could listen to a version of the visualisation here. Warning, it's quite woo-woo, but I found it powerful and moving all the same.
I have a clear sense of my future self; I know what she looks like, how she laughs, and I can feel the ease with which she moves through her world. She anchors me in my vision for the next 5-10 years, and she guides my leadership now. I did the visualisation about three years ago and have noticed myself becoming that woman. I don't have her ease or her wardrobe yet (she has fabulous clothes! 1960's couture but with softer lines), but I notice that I'm adopting her way of being with people. By doing the visualisation, I got a powerful sense of her love of humanity, the arts, nature and most of all, possibility. She beamed in delight, and I suspect I sometimes do that now -possibly to the point of weirding people out.
This photo is actually my mum, Erika Beilharz (age 84, photo credit Hannah Beilharz). I'm not sure if this is how she imagined her future self, but she's mostly pretty content .
Don't get me wrong; I have drama. I get coached on it professionally and by my certification peers. And of course, I vent about it with friends. But now, I try not to let it muddy my working life. When I'm leading my team, interact with peers or senior faculty, I try to clean all that up first, showing up as my authentic future self. As the woman who can handle anything that comes at her. The woman who can be vulnerable without shame, who knows what to do, including knowing when that means asking for help. The woman who manages her own mind instead of trying to control or change others (2).
I can feel you might want to argue with me about this. We've all seen and occasionally contributed angst about imposter syndrome, bias and structural inequity etc. I don't want, for a second, to diminish the existence of these things; they are very real. And yet I'd like for us all to spend less time there. When we frame ourselves as the victims of systemic bias, for example, we give away any power we do have. Plus, being the victim feels terrible. For me, the victimy feeling is anxious, withdrawn, wary, insecure and paralysed. And then, victims need perpetrators, so I add angry, self-righteous, intolerant and antagonistic to the 'feelings cocktail'. Needless to say, none of those feelings drive useful actions. All they can do is bring results that create further evidence for the problem.
Among the darkest times in my career, as lab head, came when I applied for an 'Advancing Women's Research Success Grant', a scheme my institution well-meaningly created to help women with career interruptions. The idea was that high-potential level B/C women would compete for a number of $11,000 grants to fund child-care, partner travel, coaching etc. I applied and failed twice. Both times, I read all the literature around unconscious bias, the scissor plot, stereotype threat, and all of it sent me into a downward spiral. for me Stereotype threat is the worst.
I hated that I was competing with other women with my hard-luck story. My child is the light of my life, not an excuse for a dip in productivity. I hated that the feedback I got was that I hadn't sufficiently 'sold my story' (3). I vowed never to apply for a 'women in science' award again. And, as convenor of the Lorne Genome Conference, I dismantled a mid-career women in science award. Where previously a single named mid-career award had existed -with a terrible history of favouring male applicants- now there were two awards, where one would go to a woman and one to a man (4).
Thankfully, a good friend talked me out of the 'never applying again' because, on a second attempt, I was awarded a Georgina Sweet Women in Quantitative Research Award in 2019. It was an honour to receive it, be named among other amazing mid-career women, and to join in a celebration of science. Best of all, the four recipients of the award had dinner with a group of extraordinary senior women in STEM. I sat next to the indomitable Prof Adrienne Clarke. There was ease and lightness in everything she did; in everything she said, it was so clear, she was living her authentic future self.
My authentic future self sees the problems but doesn't feel she's a victim of any of them. She feels powerful, determined and courageous. And armed with those feelings, she can focus on finding solutions. She knows that people will judge her, and that's ok; she remembers that she was sometimes judgy too. I am not her all of the time yet, but I can channel her energy and know that I'm becoming her.
My coaching-practice sessions with volunteers are almost over; I've learned so much and am grateful to the courageous women who took the risk. For them, and for you, I'd like to offer, spend some time thinking or journallng about what it is you really want. Where you want to be in 5 years, in 10 years, and who you'll be when you get there? If you can imagine her, let her guide you, her existence in the future depends on you now. Yes, you'll have some drama; I can coach you on that, but consider showing up as your authentic future self now. I promise, you'll get there faster.
This is a good clip of Tara Mohr's work. I highly recommend the book too.
Actually, I'd love to change people. It's just that it doesn't tend to go well. It's hard enough to change ourselves.
What were they thinking? Any woman running a lab and with primary-school-age children deserves the award without competing with her peers for it!
It was controversial at the time, but I was just so sick of debating merit etc. IMO, if organisations are serious about fixing diversity issues, the simple first step is quotas. The second step is to support that diversity so it can flourish. But be warned, saying quotas out loud in organisational meetings shows pretty quickly how people are about diversity.