A further article on helping women aspire to leadership positions argues that apparent disadvantages can become a springboard to a different, and potentially game-changing, style of leadership

Women in law face a “double whammy” when it comes to moving into leadership positions. Both our training as lawyers and our socialisation as women create potential barriers to becoming an effective leader. What do I mean by this? Let’s look first at the lawyer issue. Lawyers are trained to focus on the details, identify and avoid risks, be cautious, avoid mistakes at all costs and look to the past as a guide to the future.

Effective leaders, on the other hand, need to focus on the big picture, be willing to take calculated risks and to be able to imagine a future which is not necessarily a continuation of the past. They also need to be comfortable with uncertainty and to be able to communicate their vision and imbue their people with a sense of confidence even when the way ahead is unclear.

So in order to become an effective leader, a lawyer needs to unlearn some of their deeply engrained habits and cultivate some radically new attributes.

The obstacles within

As if this was not enough, women face some extra internal hurdles in comparison to men when making the transition to leadership. First, women are typically more cautious and risk-averse than men. Whether this is due to nature or nurture is open to debate, but what is clear is that this can leave women at a disadvantage in the leadership stakes.

Secondly, women are more inclined to doubt themselves, so we may well hang back from opportunities rather than putting ourselves forward.

According to Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In, women consistently underrate their abilities and will tend to attribute success to factors such as luck or hard work, whereas men tend to overrate their performance and attribute success to their own ability.

Thirdly, and perhaps most devastatingly, studies show that success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women: i.e. a successful man will usually be liked unless he behaves really badly, whereas a successful woman is judged more harshly and has to work harder to retain her likeability and not be seen as overly pushy or ambitious. In the famous “Howard/Heidi” study, identical descriptions of a successful entrepreneur were given to some potential employees – the only difference was the gender of the entrepreneur. The participants in the study consistently rated Howard as someone they would be happy to work for, whereas they were more wary of Heidi and feared she was just “out for herself”.

The message was clear: success and likeability do not go hand in hand for women.

Am I suggesting that women only have themselves to blame for the lack of gender equality in the law? Absolutely not. We need structural change in the way that the legal profession operates to ensure a more level playing field, and the involvement of men is key to this. On the other hand I don’t believe that this is sufficient in itself. It is my view that women need to look at how they engage with power and do all they can to use their influence to shape the profession and model a progressive style of leadership. Here are five ideas which can help you to thrive on the path to leadership.

1 Have a plan to actively cultivate your leadership potential

What new capacities do you want to grow in yourself? What characteristics do you need to ease up on? Don’t just expect to develop the qualities you need for leadership simply by being promoted, or having a certain number of years’ experience, or being good at developing new business. Create a plan for yourself of what new capacities you wish to cultivate. Get support to do this and actively seek out feedback from others.

2 Grow your capacity for risk-taking

Consciously develop your risk-taking muscle. Notice where your comfort zone is and take regular steps outside of it. For example, if public speaking terrifies you, then find opportunities to practise it until you get more comfortable with it. Don’t expect to be a pro overnight, but if you practise you will become more confident. A simple tip to increase your confidence immediately is to stretch out your arms. When you engage your extensor muscles this creates testosterone, which increases confidence. The “warrior” pose in yoga is also great for this. Don’t wait till you feel “ready” – recognise that you may always have to manage feelings of being not good enough, but by becoming more of a risk taker, when an opportunity does come your way you will be more likely to step up rather than pull back.

3 Recognise that the success/likeability dilemma is very real for women

Like it or not, when women are assertive they are judged more harshly for it than men. The solution is not to roll over and give in. Research demonstrates that if women show that they value the other person and recognise their objectives, they can assert their own position without losing goodwill.

Also, make sure you give reasons for your point of view rather than presenting a “take it or leave it” approach. This creates a sense of connectedness with those you are dealing with and makes them more open to being positively influenced by you. Neuroscience shows us that successful leaders need a combination of testosterone for confidence and oxytocin (the bonding hormone) for creating connection and belonging. To put it simply, you need both backbone and heart.

4 Take time out to reflect and develop your vision

Wise leaders go on retreat at regular intervals to refresh and renew themselves. It is said that “Managers manage things right and leaders manage the right things.” Don’t get so caught up in the minutiae that you neglect to see the big picture. Women have been criticised for not demonstrating enough vision as leaders. I personally think this is rubbish, but maybe we have been too busy taking care of the details to value our own insights and vision.

5 Expose yourself to new ideas and ways of doing business

Get out of the legal silo and network with other sectors and different types of people. Lawyers tend to be behind the curve when it comes to innovation. Some commentators are predicting that the days of the traditional law firm are numbered – there are just too many of them – and we are rapidly approaching a phase of consolidation and downsizing. It is the nimble innovators who will survive and thrive as we go through this phase. It is generally easier for small organisations to innovate and adapt rapidly to changing conditions than large ones, which are more concerned with maintaining the status quo.

In my view it’s easier to innovate if you step outside of the mainstream and create something new. Shifting entrenched systems from within is a much tougher process. Lynda Gratton, of London Business School and author of The Shift: The Future of Work is Already Here, predicts that organisations of the future will have fewer core staff and will draw on a pool of flexible workers who come together on a project basis. It’s far better to be ready for these new trends than playing catch-up.

What might seem like disadvantages for women can be turned to your advantage if you use these challenges as a springboard to develop a more confident, connected and visionary style of leadership. I believe that women doing this en masse have the capacity to “change the rules of the game”.


About the author

Liz Rivers was formerly a commercial litigation lawyer with Eversheds and one of the UK’s first mediators. She now specialises in helping talented women to become purpose-driven leaders who exude both warmth and credibility: for details see www.lizrivers.com

She also works with Core, the business mediation provider, and teaches on its flagship Mediation Skills for Leaders course.

For her earlier article (August 2015, 24), on preparing for “purpose-driven” leadership, Click here

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