Expect To Be Tested

March 19, 2009

Expect to be confronted.  Expect to be opposed.  Expect to have to defend yourself in the face of opposition.  Don’t be unprepared, even, for dirty tricks.  And whatever you do, don’t turn tail and retreat to the bushes.”  

Those are the words of PhD Nancy Badore, a friend and former colleague who developed and ran the Executive Development Center at Ford Motor Company, when it was one of the most admired and successful companies in the world – a little over a decade ago. 

She and I were talking recently about women, leadership and, in particular, courage.  

I’m convinced that “Build Courage” is one of the essential habits that women achievers must develop in order to become effective and genuine leaders.   Of course every leader, male or female, needs courage.  The times when leadership is needed most is when the gale is upon us.  Such as right now.

When we think about courage, most of our mental databases serve up a few of the thousands of images that our culture has planted deep into our subconscious.  Most look vaguely familiar:  men on battlefields charging up hills, galloping into the face of an enemy, or rescuing women and children.  

We have to think a bit to pull up clear images of women and courage, such as the Suffragettes chaining themselves to the White House fence or enduring forced feedings in prison. Rare is the culture anywhere in the world that celebrates and consistently models women’s courage.  But we have it and use it every day.  And it’s essential for leaders.  When I think of courage in terms of women and leadership, I think of:

 The courage to not silently accept the status quo, but to lead change.
 The courage to speak up with conviction about your own  insights, even when you are a minority voice. 
 The courage to rise to defining moments and use them to springboard you to a higher level.
 The courage to stand up to criticism and welcome challenges as a chance to show you know your stuff,  rather than taking them as personal attacks.  

That last one is an area women struggle with much more than men.  Of course we’ve known for years that men are from Mars and women from Venus.   But thanks to powerful, new brain imaging technology that allows us to observe brains in action, we’re learning why we’re so different.  Turns out, our different reactions to similar situations have as much to do with how our brains are hard-wired as with our cultural conditioning.  

Hormones have plenty to do with it. Higher levels of testosterone, for example, are why men’s reaction to a threat or challenge is to stand up and fight, while women’s default reaction is to avoid conflict and back off.   Of course our biological hard-wiring goes back to cave man and cave woman days.  We know from Darwin that Mother Nature is all about survival of the species and could care less whether you are considered senior executive material or gain the confidence of voters to elect you to political leadership.   

Our lives and ambitions today far exceed the female brain wiring that hasn’t changed much in millions of years, not to mention the possibilities for generations of foremothers. I’ve just read a fascinating book on the topic:  The Female Brain, by Dr. Louann Brizendine, a neuropsychiatrist at the University of California and founder of the Women’s and Teen Girls Mood and Hormone Clinic. 

“We are living in the midst of a revolution in consciousness about women’s biological reality that will transform human society,” Dr. Brizendine writes.  Think about that.  On our watch, we can be catalysts to help transform society.  But it takes courage.

Dr. Nancy Badore urges her executive clients,  “Learn to appreciate 'hecklers' as comediennes do.  Because the best comediennes," she says, "have learned that the  extent to which they can rebut, hold their ground, stay cool and top the heckler, they’ll go to the head  of the line.” 

 So the next time you find yourself facing “hecklers” and your ideas being challenged and tested, forget your ancient, out-of-date hard-wiring that tells you to take it as a personal attack.  Instead, follow Badore’s very sage advice for 21st Century women.  “Let the people who counter you bring out in you that tiny little crinkle of pleasure  -- because you know you are about engage in a debate  that you have a good sense is worth winning.”   

To do that requires preparation and grit.  Plus, as with any skill, the more you practice the better you'll get. Build Courage.

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