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Why it’s time to break the leadership mould and how we do it

Updated: Nov 18, 2019

By Stephanie Mitton

“You are too enthusiastic! You are too much!” Have you ever had someone suggest that your personality is unprofessional? I have, about a million times.

Shockingly, these are the words that were said to our first guest on the WDDT podcast.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing a fierce leader and unapologetic champion for women, Dr. Vianne Timmons, President of the University of Regina. One of the things that stands out to me the most about Vianne is her authenticity.

I define an authentic leader as someone who is in a leadership position, but who is themselves, owns who they are - from their faults, to their strengths, to how they look, act and talk. Brené Brown explains the importance and benefits of this leadership style in her book, “Dare to Lead.” Brown encourages leaders to embrace vulnerability and support authenticity within the workplace as this cultivates personal growth, innovation and creativity.

I have been thinking a lot about authentic leadership lately as I transition into a Managing Director role from an Assistant Director role. How do I be myself and authentic to myself, but still be taken seriously at boardroom tables?

I have worked in many environments where there have been tight boxes around what a leader looks like, with constraints such as: don’t look too young, don’t look too pretty, wear dark-coloured clothing (preferably pantsuits), and don't be too enthusiastic or rock the hierarchy. These limits have always felt very unnatural to me. I have found small ways to rebel, such as funky glasses or accessories, to make myself feel more me.

In our interview, Vianne shared her recent experience meeting a group of grade four students. They told her “you don’t seem like a university president… you are normal. You are not a man, you are not tall, you are not old enough, and you don’t have glasses.” These kids at the ripe age of 10 already had an image of a leader, and Vianne Timmons, the President of the University of Regina, wasn’t it.

As I have been reflecting on my own leadership journey, I am struck by something else Vianne shared about speaking up about gender issues at work. Someone asked her, “do you advise all women to speak out and challenge the status quo.” She does not. Vianne says, “you have to know how safe you are, how comfortable you are doing that, because there are ramifications for standing up and speaking out. And I would say to women, be brave, but also protect yourself. Try to do both together. If you rise through the positions in your organization, you will know when you get to a place where you can speak out and the ramifications are manageable. There are always ramifications, but you can manage them. I don’t want women, in particular young women, to be vulnerable by thinking it’s a world where my voice is going to be okay and I can speak out and challenge the status quo. Sometimes you can, sometimes you’ll have to be careful.”

And there is the truth. This reality makes me sad. But this -- this is why I feel so conflicted: because as much as we tell ourselves and our children to be yourself, we don’t mean it yet; as a society, we are just not there.

Vianne’s relatability, vulnerability and authenticity shone through our conversation--qualities that I admire and respect most in a leader. Vianne is one of the most powerful female leaders in Canada today, and I am so grateful for her authentic leadership.

When I asked Vianne about how we balance being authentically ourselves and at the same time risk not fitting the “box” usually considered for leadership positions, Vianne responded, “that is why we have to break those boxes apart and we have to make sure that leaders are embraced from all races, cultures, genders, that we have to change that societal perception of what a leader looks like. And that’s tough work.”

Vianne agreed that existing leaders (men and women) need to show their authentic selves, so that those following them have the freedom to do the same.

You may be asking yourself, why does it matter? For individuals to be themselves it matters. For young women to see themselves as leaders, and for leaders to see young women as future leaders, it matters. Another reason is that we are missing out on leaders who just don’t happen to look or act exactly like you. We could be missing out on the next Prime Minister, the person who will cure cancer, or the first astronaut to land on Mars if we don’t. It will arguably make our workplaces more reflective of real life, more understanding, tolerable and ultimately less stressful.

I want to thank women like Vianne who against all odds have made it into leadership positions and done it authentically -- paving the path for the rest of us.

May we all feel brave enough to be a little or a lot more like Vianne Timmons. And for myself, may I regain the enthusiasm I’ve repressed for years. I hope other leaders will do the same so that we can all be authentically ourselves, you and me, and also our daughters and sons. Maybe next time I will not hide my enthusiasm, or just wear the earrings I want to. Maybe if I ever run for politics again I won’t tie my hair back for two months, wear glasses and exclusively dresses with blazers because that is what I felt like I had to do or was told to do.

A practical tip from my own journey is to find a mentor to help you navigate your career path and leadership journey.

I want to close off with a quote from Vianne about her hope about our generation.

“I am so excited about your generation. I am so excited about these young women I meet every single day, and I want to make sure we do something to leave this world in a better place, in terms of gender equality, than it was left for us.”

Dr. Vianne Timmons, President of the University of Regina

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