Real Leaders

Between Grit and Grace: The Art of Being Formidable

“It’s okay to be kind and commanding,” says Sasha Shillcutt (above), CEO of Brave Enough, an organization that encourages women to live authentically and stop apologizing for their strength. Leading an organization with more than 10,000 women, Shillcutt’s mission is to share life lessons learned from falling down and getting back up again.

I was angry. I had been in an important negotiation but left empty handed. I had gone in prepared with impressive data and a good argument. As I lamented my frustration to a coworker, she interrupted. “Don’t get upset about it. The guys wouldn’t.”

Of course, they wouldn’t be upset, I thought. Statistically, a man wouldn’t have left empty-handed! But I took her words to heart and thought about how I could have negotiated better, more like a man. After reading Crucial Conversations and other books on negotiating, I knew men were seen more favorably than women when negotiating. Surely this meant that if I wanted a better outcome, I needed to model a man, right?

When I went into my next negotiation and tried to emulate a man, I felt ridiculous — unauthentic, rehearsed, and forced. I was incredibly direct, didn’t mince words, and spoke more than I listened. I tried to be as flat and unswerving as possible. It makes me laugh at myself now as I tell this story, but this is what I had pictured a man would do: state forcefully why I deserved what I was asking for, as I had witnessed a few men do in prior meetings. Needless to say, my strategy didn’t work, and I vowed that day never to negotiate, lead, speak, or teach in any way other than as myself. I should have gone into the negotiation with transparency, honesty, and facts. Now when I negotiate, I state at the beginning of the conversation, “Look, I’m going to negotiate, and I know from the data that women are looked upon unfavorably and face backlash when they negotiate. I’m telling you this now so that doesn’t happen, and we can both be as transparent as possible.”

The path to success in the corporate world fits a man’s walking shoes: the more assertive men are, the more competent they are judged to be. We know this is opposite for women, as the more assertive we are in the workplace, the more we face leadership backlash. Academia, science, and technology fields are similar, and women receive societal cues that tell us to follow the path made for men. We struggle to follow the unwritten rules that tell us if we want to succeed professionally, we must alter our authentic selves or face backlash. Some of us choose the latter. We rise up and fight the status quo, engaging in the workplace as our authentic selves. But we often find ourselves exhausted, constantly fighting the internal battle of who we truly are. And then what happens? We retreat. We grab the manual off the shelf and pick back up in chapter one. We grow war weary.

Some of us don’t even realize we are following the manual. We are constantly conflicted in predominantly male environments and thus blame ourselves when we fail to get what we seek. We think we must not be strong enough, or we are too strong and stepped on toes, or it must be a personality flaw or blind spot we need to fix.

We operate in a constant flux of indecisiveness, unassured if we can step forward into roles or areas dominated by men. We think we just need a few more classes, more experience, and more mentorship. We blame ourselves for not arriving. We wonder why we were looked over, passed over, or told no. We assume we just need more of something. I want to challenge the status quo on the notion that women need more. Actually, I want to flip the tables (except for the one I’ll stand on) and shout this: You do not need more classes, more mentorship, more of anything to strip yourself of being you and thus emulating men in the workplace to succeed. You do need opportunities to grow, strong mentors to follow, and sponsorships to open doors for you so you can learn from your failures and wins as a woman. You will become the best version of yourself by growing within experiences
and roles. 

One of the loudest messages women hear in the workplace is that if we think like a man, we think like a leader. No, no, no! Did you hear me?! (Sorry if you haven’t had coffee yet.)

We are not men. Many men have great attributes and make great leaders. But it’s not because they are men. It’s because they are wise people, servant-minded, strategic thinkers, and have strong work ethics. Guess what? Strong women leaders possess those same attributes but display them in different ways. Women are communal, great listeners, strategic thinkers, and also have incredibly strong work ethics.

Leaders with these attributes are what make organizations strong. There is room at the table for both men’s and women’s ideas. We are not the same but are wonderfully different. Each human being was created with a specific set of strengths, creativity, and diversity that is radically and desperately needed within our organizations and workplaces. We must unlink the concept of men and women competing against one another in the workplace. We must embrace our differences and celebrate the distinctive qualities and abilities we each possess.

Men and women were created differently for a reason, and our differences are our strengths. When we lead as women, we may lead contrarily to our male colleagues, and that’s a worthy thing. Research has shown that diverse thinking is great for innovation and for teams. Fortune 500 companies that have diverse boards, made up of both men and women, not only have more innovation but also demonstrate better financial growth and return on investment.

When we come together as diverse people, we see things differently, we hear things in ways others may not, and, thus, we may identify groups of people or important concerns that would otherwise go unnoticed.

To lead as strong women, we must embrace the fact that we are women. We need to stop hiding our mix of attributes, both feminine and masculine — the special sauce that makes us unique individuals. Recognizing that we may experience internal conflict when expressing our strengths as women and understanding what it means to thrive in a world in which we are not the elevated gender requires clarity. Clarity requires time alone with ourselves to come to these truths. Therefore, one of the most important gifts we can give ourselves is time. 

Time alone to pour into our authenticity is often referred to as self care. I like to call it internal work because, quite frankly, it isn’t easy. It’s how I feed my soul, identify my weaknesses, process my failures, and reset my mental health. It is work. Time with ourselves is the single most difficult thing women seem to be able to find these days. 

There is value to both men and women when we are vulnerable enough to open up and be honest with how women must navigate our workplaces, our families, and our expertise. When we share our biggest struggles and our biggest challenges, we normalize what it means to be a woman. We step out of the shadows and find courage, hope, and solidarity. We also find the strength to say enough is enough.

This is an adapted excerpt from Between Grit and Grace: How to Be Feminine and Formidable by Dr. Sasha Shillcutt. HCI Books. Copyright 2020. Used with permission.

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