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Lift As You Climb: Lessons in Leadership

The COVID-19 pandemic dealt a significant blow to women in the workforce. Millions of women had to pivot or leave the workforce altogether. Gender disparities have increased over the past two years and now more than ever the ‘do-it-all’ vision of women is shattering. The picture of working mothers effortlessly juggling their careers, parenthood, household management and more has been exposed as women balancing so many competing priorities; they describe themselves as drowning in unpaid labor—at home and at work. 

March 8, 2022, is International Women’s Day, and March is Women’s History Month. Now is a perfect time to heed leadership lessons from women who have both survived and flourished in the business world. It’s also a good opportunity to explore ways to support the women leaders in your organization. 

Leadership Lessons from Women Leaders

What is a leader? What makes a leader great? In their book Real Women, Real Leaders, Kathy Hurley and Priscilla Shumway interviewed transformational women leaders asking for the secrets to their success. Men and women often approach strategy through different lenses, but in the end, all leaders work toward similar goals of stability and growth. It can be invaluable to step back from your own lens to look at your organization through another leader’s perspective— and gain wisdom from situations you will not— or simply have not yet — experienced. 

Develop a Clear Mission

Eleanor Smalley, president and CEO of JASON Learning, believes that “when there is a strong vision, when creative, strategic, and committed people work together toward the mission, the results can be amazing.”

Leadership can be lonely, and there are times when you may feel the weight of decision-making rests squarely on your shoulders and yours alone. But you can lighten that load by mentoring your employees. Help them understand your values, and they’ll shift from thinking in immediate tactics to strategic planning. Less “what works right now” and more “how does this fit into our company and align with our values and growth?” And you’ll realize benefits, too, when strategic thinking isn’t reliant on you alone. The infusion of new ideas may propel you into new or more robust initiatives. 

Explain the Why Behind the What

Julie Young, Founding President and former CEO of Florida Virtual School, shares her thoughts on leadership: “I have always lived by the philosophy that we are leaders not because of titles but because people choose to follow us.” 

Especially in these turbulent times, people are looking to their leaders to help make sense of the world and their place within it. Young’s advice is to always share your why behind your what. Sharing your reasoning behind decisions can help staff understand your logic and develop a sense of their place within your organization. When you lead with your values first, employees can follow your vision and model their own growth on them. 

Use Multiple Lenses of Leadership

Eileen Lento, CEO at MatchMaker Education Labs, shares that “the results-oriented culture favors and rewards assertive, confident, and ambitious behavior, strategic relationship building with mentors, and political skills, rather than the collaboration and community building at which women excel.” 

Lento cautions that the price of ignoring gender diversity is high, measured by “lost potential, lost opportunity, and lost credibility.” She recommends looking through different leadership lenses to inform your organizational growth. You may be able to identify skills and talents in your workforce that are going undeveloped and find a way to foster those equally essential talents. 


“The goal of many leaders is to get people to think more highly of the leader.
The goal of a great leader is to help people to think more highly of themselves.”
Carla Northcutt

Support the Women in Your Organization With These 3 Tips

Now more than ever, the workplace is suffering from a surfeit of talented employees staying in their careers. Staff retention is a complicated beast at the best of times: you have to balance wellbeing with workloads, empathy with efficiency, salaries with strategies. Here are three things to consider when you’re looking to keep— and elevate– the skillful staff you already have.

Be Aware of Hidden Labor

If you look at your organization, you likely know what work duties your employees are responsible for completing. You’ve seen or written job descriptions for new hires. But are there internal “tasks” being completed that aren’t on any list?

Studies show that women disproportionately manage domestic tasks, such as keeping break rooms clean, managing lunch orders for meetings, and keeping up office traditions like hosting the annual holiday party or bringing in a cake on someone’s birthday. If you have regular tasks being completed, be sure these are assigned to a person or department and included in part of their paid duties.

Be Respectful of Parental Roles

Gender norms and family dynamics are evolving. Working parents are the norm, and the share of breadwinning mothers is high. In 2017, 41% of working women were the sole or primary breadwinners for their families, and that number has been steadily increasing. Women have also long been considered the primary parent in families and for many families, they’re  the first person the school calls when a child is sick and the parent who receives medical appointment reminders. 

These norms are evolving, but COVID-19 data shows us that women still absorb the bulk of primary parent duties. Understanding the competing needs of working mothers and allowing for flexibility to accommodate where you can will enlarge your workforce pool — and ensure that skilled, talented workers are staying in the workforce. Studies show that parent-friendly policies are a win for everyone in the office.

Review Hiring and Retention Practices

You may already have participated in unconscious bias training and focused on making your job descriptions and interview processes as equitable as possible. Still, studies show that women often self-select out of jobs before they even apply. There are myriad reasons for this phenomenon, many of which are out of your control. But you can focus on the people in your employ and verify they’re receiving mentorship, support and guidance in their career goals. Lack of ambition is rarely the problem, but lack of support or uncertainty about potential career growth opportunities can turn an ambitious employee into one who is just punching a clock. 

In Real Women, Real Leaders, one piece of advice remains consistent from every woman leader: Lift up others behind you. 

“If there’s one piece of advice I took away from Real Women, Real Leaders is that it’s never about me, it’s always about us,” said Cindy Leines, CEL founder and CEO. “Success isn’t climbing over others to get to the top; it’s lifting each other up so that we all succeed. This advice is especially true for women in leadership. I’ve had the privilege of working with amazing women leaders in schools, business and healthcare. The vast majority were committed to supporting and empowering others.”

It’s normal for leaders to resist the thought of walking away from a business or organization they built and fostered through countless ups and downs. But leaders who have shared their vision and instilled their values in others will leave a legacy that most certainly outlasts their tenure. 

So while you’re out climbing mountains, be sure to reach back and pull others up along with you.




Published on: February 28, 2022