Leadership is no longer based on the old model of top-down. The new leadership is more about ideas and influence – persuasion replaces command and empowerment replaces authority. It is leadership that grows out of providing direction because it is needed rather than because of having a formal title. The roles of leaders and followers are fluid and radically democratic, dictated by skills strength coupled with inclusive vision. According to Dr. Mitch McCrimmon, author of Burn! Leadership Myths in Flames, “…anyone with a better idea and the courage to promote it can show leadership. Such leadership is an occasional act, not a role to be monopolized.” This new model of leadership asserts what I have long experienced as a life leadership coach – we are all born with an innate capacity to lead, the task is stepping up as the leader you were born to be.
Women are ideally suited to this new model of leadership not only in their careers but also in their personal lives. They are natural partners who prefer collaboration. So it stands to reason that a natural area for women to mine the riches of their leadership capacity is in their personal lives. In fact, for women to have fantastic, supportive, loving romantic relationships they must learn how to be the leaders of their romantic relationships.
I was listening to “Car Talk,” the NPR show where listeners call in for help with their cars, on Saturday morning. I love Click and Clack, the nicknames of the show’s two hosts. They make me laugh and nostalgically remind me of my two Italian uncles. They were talking about what makes marriage work citing John Gottman of all people. For those of you unfamiliar with Gottman, he is a professor of psychology at the University of Washington where he directs The Gottman Institute and author of Why Marriages Succeed or Fail.
It was a real hoot to hear Click and Clack citing Gottman’s work. They said according to Gottman’s studies of married couples what makes marriages work is when the woman says what she wants and the man does it. Of course, Click and Clack thought that getting men to do what their wives want would be the challenge of succeeding at Gottman’s assertion.
In my twenty-five years experience, however, the real challenge is getting women to say to the men in their lives in a clear, direct manner what they want. Women are socialized to believe if they have to do this to get what they want it means the man does not really love them. After all if he really loved them, they reason, he would know exactly what they wanted and deliver it every time. This approach to our romantic relationships is fraught with passivity, which worked just fine for women 40+ years ago when our role in our romantic relationship was primarily one of support and our need was for protection and security.
But today’s woman has a career, her own finances and life goals. She is educated and contributes financially. Most modern women want romantic relationships for connection and partnership and for crafting a fulfilling life with their partner by their side. When they don’t participate in creating this new kind of relationship they feel resentful towards their partners or phobic of even getting involved for fear they’ll lose their autonomy. They must co-direct where their relationship is headed and be active in planning the goals to get there. They have to step up as the leaders of their romantic relationships matching values to actions, practicing emotional intelligence and monitoring inclusion.
So how can a woman get started? There are a couple steps that will help women shift from passive participant to active leader of their romantic relationships.
Identify your leadership skills I believe we are all naturally born with the capacity to lead. You’ve likely functioned as a leader at school, in your family and among your friends since you were a small child. In addition you probably provide leadership as an adult on your job to direct reports, colleagues and managers. All those leadership skills can be mined and repurposed in your romantic relationship. But first you have to identify and name them. How do you do this? Think about the positive feedback you have received throughout your life both formally and informally. What did your teachers say your strengths were? How about your manager? What can your friends depend on you for? In other words, what do you bring to the table? Make a list of these. Go through these to see which one’s you actively use in your relationships and which one’s you don’t. Ask yourself how you could make better use of these skills?
Learn new leadership skills Leadership development is similar to overall emotional, intellectual and behavioral development. It is an ongoing, life long process of adding to, refining and practicing what we know. It requires a commitment to continuous learning. As you go over the list you made of the skills you already possess, whether you use them or not, make note of skills that are absent. We all have knowledge gaps. Go over each skill asking what other skills would support it. For instance, maybe you’re great at coming up with goals. What does it take to meet goals? A list might include – showing initiative, prioritizing, using resources, negotiating and motivating others. Be honest about which of these you don’t do well or at all. Often women fail at motivating others by relying instead on doing it themselves. While this will get the task done it is not such a good strategy for building a cooperative relationship or organizing by in. Once you know what you want to learn begin seeking out the knowledge. Be creative about where you can learn. Some options might be reading, taking a class, asking someone who performs the skill well to teach you, observation, seeking mentoring or coaching.
Practice, practice, practice! Being a leader is extremely rewarding and empowering but it is also hard work until we get used to doing it routinely. There are no short cuts to making leadership routine – you have to practice, try things, fail, learn from your mistakes and try again incorporating what you’ve learned. And every step of the way you’ll be tempted to quit leading. Throwing in the towel, giving up and having meltdowns do not support you! They just undermine your energy for staying in the flow of your leadership. Get to know what you do that undermines your leadership and discipline yourself not to do it. Instead explore what motivates you to be a leader in you romantic relationship. Is it the reward of creating a life that supports and nourishes you? Is it the peace that comes from feeling like you’re in control? How about the safety and security you feel from designing a relationship that is a true partnership? Once you get clear about what is motivating you use it to keep you on track when you face the choice of practicing leadership or burying your head in the sand.
And finally have fun! Learning to be a leader in your romantic relationship is enriching, enjoyable and energizing so approach it as such. Life is way too short.