Women in leadership: 5 reflections from female leaders in law

Encouraging women in legal leadership

Obelisk Support recently hosted our inaugural event for our “Women Who Will – Female Leaders in Law” network. The event brought together the classes of 2020 and 2021 of our annual Women Who Will report which celebrates the progress of women’s leadership in law, produced in partnership with the Next 100 Years Project.

This was a unique opportunity for women in in-house legal leadership to discuss and exchange ideas, as senior female leaders in law, on the opportunities, challenges and responsibilities faced as female leaders.

The discussion was opened by Nilema Bhakta-Jones, Group General at Kantar who founded the Courageous Leaders event developed for leaders and emerging leaders looking to find the courageous leader in themselves. The event raises funds for disadvantaged children to continue their education in Zimbabwe.

In this post we explore the key reflections from the discussion to better understand how to support and encourage more women in leadership positions, including a synopsis of Nilema’s opening address.

If you are interested in learning more about joining this network for senior women in leadership in the legal profession, register your interest here.

#1 Contagious courage in leadership

The correlation between leadership and courage was brought to life from the start of the discussion.

The root of the word courage is ‘cor’ – the Latin work for heart. Courage originally meant “to tell a story of who you are with your whole heart”. Acts of courage go beyond the physical acts of bravery often associated with the word – to deeper, emotional everyday actions.

Courage is not just about not being afraid to make difficult decisions. It is about turning up and being the best version of yourself every single day. It is about being true to yourself. It is about lending a voice to the voiceless or standing up to inequality.

“Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says, “I’ll try again tomorrow”

Mary Anne Radmacher

#2 The responsibilities of leadership

It was deeply acknowledged that leadership is first and foremost a responsibility. That leaders can be a force for good.

Leadership is about creating a safe environment for those in your charge to succeed and thrive. It is about supporting your team to be their best – even putting yourself in uncomfortable positions on behalf of your team, and always having their back.

As a leader it was recognised you can have a significant effect on the lives of others, particularly when you consider how much of our day / week / year is spent working.

Even though each person has their ‘day’ job to do – it was unanimously agreed that being focused on being a good role model as a leader was the most important part of being in a position of leadership. As role models leaders can inspire others, helping those around you to thrive and be their best. Often a lack of female leaders in law to aspire to was seen as a barrier for encouraging more women into actively pursuing leadership roles within the legal profession.

It was also recognised that anyone can be a leader. Leadership is not about being in charge. It is not about a radical title or your number of direct reports. It is not about seeking the glory for yourself.

Rather the rise of the servant leader was highlighted, citing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as a recent example of taking personal risk to lead in a crisis.

Part of leadership is the moral responsibility to try and do what is best for those who don’t have a voice for themselves, who feel fearful. To support others to feel safe and know that someone will stand up for them.

“Leadership is not about being in charge, it’s about taking care of those in your charge”

Simon Sinek

#3 Leadership skills: Kindness. Vulnerability. Openness

You achieve leadership and loyalty when you create a safe environment for others to succeed. Teams want to work with leaders they believe in, that they share a purpose and goals with.

It was agreed that our society has shifted, with the pandemic in particular heralding an era where being open, showing kindness and expressing vulnerability are not just accepted but now seen as key leadership competencies.

What makes a leader today is very different from 10 years ago.  An ability to create a culture of psychological safety in which team members can be themselves and in which trust thrives, is now recognised as the critical foundation to any high performing team.

As human beings we are social beings and most of us are hardwired to want connection with others. Vulnerability fosters human connection. It also creates empathy, and it builds trust. A high performing team succeeds because there is a high level of trust between team members – they know everyone, especially the leader, has their back. They know their leader doesn’t claim to have all the answers – rather they engage with their team, ask questions, and open the floor to opinions.

Openness and honesty in a professional sense also encourages team members to take risks in expressing views which can promote diversity of thinking, quicker problem resolution and identify new opportunities.

On a personal front, it can also possibly reduce unnecessary stress and worries for team members. For example, as a leader if one is open about popping out for a personal appointment, then team members won’t worry when they need to do the same.

#4 Leadership and overcoming fear

Encouraging was the consensus that overcoming one’s fear as a leader in your day-to-day enables you to inspire others and show a different way of leading and a different way of operating.

The pressure to be a good leader was highlighted, especially to be the female leader role model that attendees would have wanted to aspire to.

How fear can hold women back from simply owning a seat at the table was also noted. As female leaders, one of the hardest things to do is to speak truth to power, yet that is the role female leaders must play. It can be difficult, and it is particularly hard in a toxic environment.

The importance of choosing how you want to show up at work each day, knowing what you want to stand for and what you want to do was emphasised. Then courage will come through each day.

Being in leadership can mean having to deal with imposter syndrome – a misplaced fear of being “caught out” or not responding in the way that you perceive a leader ought to respond. Here mindset is critical to build confidence – do not think about having to fill someone else’s shoes but rather think “I have brought my own shoes to fill” shared one Head of Legal.

Leadership is not easy. It can be scary being the person where the buck stops. It was noted that you don’t realise you can do something until you jump in and do it. Once you take the first step, you often find that you know more than you thought and discover there are ways to find out the things you do not know.

The greatest advice shared was not to fear failure. Everyone learns through attempting new things. The only true failure is not to try at all in the first place and give yourself the best chance.

“Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it”

Nelson Mandela

#5 The role of sponsors and relationships in leadership

The importance of looking up from doing your day-day job and delivering your best every day to invest time in forming and nurturing relationships to progress your career was highlighted.

Finding a sponsor was identified as an effective way to grow into your next role. Someone who understood your aspirations and ambitions. Importantly it was noted that sponsors should not be viewed through the lens of “using your connections” but rather as people who had an interest in helping you to thrive and reach your full potential.

And it is a two-way street. Especially as female leaders in law, it is vital to be intentional about supporting others as sponsors, to help the next generation of aspiring female leaders in our profession.

Similarly, the power of relationships and networking was emphasised. Do not neglect your relationships – check-in with your peers, ex-colleagues and wider network, be on hand to give advice and proactively look to meaningfully expand your network.  Yes, investing in your relationships takes time, however, the benefits you will reap will help you grow as a leader and help those in your network grow as you give back.

Leadership lessons: Learning from history to build a future legacy

​In closing, Dana Denis-Smith, CEO and Founder of Obelisk Support left us with these inspirational thoughts.

“With Women’s History Month just passed and the wider world events taking place with the war in Ukraine, it gives us pause to put issues into a wider context and learn the importance of history.

Over the past 100 years, there has been notable and incredible progress made, yet despite more women entering the legal profession – there is still a conspicuous lack of female leaders at the top. Still, I have no doubt in my mind that working together as women leaders in law, we can continue to champion change and to build a future-facing profession where men and women have true equality of both opportunity and outcome.

It can be lonely at the top, especially if pioneering new ways as we have here at Obelisk Support or leading differently. However, we are more than what we think we are. As female leaders in law we must be courageous on our journey. We must continue to effect positive change in purposeful and authentic ways”

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