September 26th, is Women's Equality Day and I'm off to speak to a Federal Department here in D.C. to celebrate the occasion. The topic: "Leadership is a Choice, Not a Position." I think leadership ties in beautifully with women's equality, indeed with all equality. After all, the women's equality movement began in 1848 when five otherwise ordinary women, sitting around drinking tea, decided to put a notice in the local newspaper announcing "a convention to discuss the rights of women". It was to be held six days later in their hometown of Seneca Falls, upstate New York. Six days later they drafted a declaration stating that "we find these truths to be self evident: that all men and women are created equal." Of the 100 people who signed that declaration, only one, nineteen year old Charlotte Woodward, lived long enough to gain the right to vote 72 years later in 1920.
Now I'm not here to give you a history lesson on women's rights (given I only just learnt this stuff myself researching for my speech). Rather I want to challenge you to examine how you define leadership, and more particularly, how you see yourself as a leader. After all, how you see yourself (as a leader and as a person) determines how others see you. When it comes to leadership, I believe authentic leadership is about making a stand for what we believe in, expanding what we (and others) see as possible and for daring to create change regardless of our formal position, status or authority. Leadership ultimately calls us to step beyond our comfort zone and put ourselves at risk in some way. Then again, to be outstanding in life, we must first be prepared to stand out.
While women today in the U.S., Australia and most developed countries enjoy opportunities our grandmothers (dare I say, our mothers?) never knew, injustice and inequality still exist in every society around the world. Here are a few statistics to make you cringe (and feel grateful you were born with the opportunities you have):
Of course we don't need to look to Africa or the Middle East to find injustice and inequity. There's plenty of it out your back door... you just have to open your eyes to it. It's for this reason that we are each called today, just as those women were back in 1848, to step up to the leadership plate in our own way. If you are waiting for someone to give you the authority, status or permission to do so, you may well never take the actions you need to take, make the positive impact you're capable of making, or develop your innate leadership ability.
I have never labeled myself a feminist. I am, however, a passionate believer in the potential of all people to make a meaningful difference. But I believe this can only be accomplished when we are ready to step up to the plate and think bigger and challenge the status quo, however long its been in place. You don't have to have a name like Oprah, Bono or Angelina to create a vision for yourself, your community, organization and society that inspires you and to work toward creating a more prosperous, egalitarian and moral world. You just have to make a decision to do it.
As I said before, real leadership first begins with self leadership. How you see yourself determines how others see you. How powerfully you live your own life determines the extent to which those around you will sense their own personal power and express it in the world. When you light a candle in a dark room its not just you who can see things more clearly.
On that note, I challenge you to take one action today (and then another tomorrow...) that calls on you to step outside your comfort zone and up to the leadership plate for the sake of a purpose or goal that is bigger than you. It might be speaking up about an issue to a colleague at work that you've been putting off (afraid of ruffling feathers), or sending out an email rallying friends behind a cause/charity you care about. It might be signing up to help a group that is doing something worthwhile for less fortunate people in your community or volunteering to coach you kids' soccer team this season. It might be taking on greater responsibility in your work and community, not because you'll get extra money or kudos but because you want to develop your ability to lead yourself and others to achieving more. Or it just might be something else entirely. My hope though is that you will do more than just delete this email and get on with your day as though you have no power in affecting positive change in your own life or anyone else's. That, after all, is a big fat cop out.
So, dare to make a more meaningful impact in the world around you. In short, live and lead boldly!
Iif you would like to get a copy of the one-page handout "Leadership is a Choice" that I will be distributing at the Women's Equality Day Program, please send an email to me.