Celebrating Womens History Month – No More Superwomen

by | Mar 12, 2024 | Leadership

Traditional leadership traits were based on a limited demographic of white males who could work long hours. They had stay-at-home wives who covered the home front so they could cover the work front.  This leadership model does not work for working women, who oftentimes juggle both. In this blog, I will discuss how we can free ourselves of the superwoman stereotype of what makes us “good leaders” and redefine it in a way that works for us. 

It starts with self-examination.

After two stimulating and engaging days facilitating leadership workshops for a client on the West Coast, I decided to stay an additional night rather than take a late flight back to Chicago. This decision is just one example of tiny steps I’ve made to transition from leading like a superwoman to leading more like a well-woman. 

I have worked as a consultant for most of my adult life, and there was a time in my career when I would’ve rushed back to Chicago to be in my office the next day. It would have been expected, and I would have obliged, regardless of the cost to my overall well-being. It would have been the practice expected for me to be considered a high-performing leader in my companies.

Have you examined the learned behaviors you have adopted over time? If not, now is the time to do so.

Why the “traditional” model of leadership does not work for women

According to the top leadership theorists of my early career, leaders were expected to have above-average intelligence, high energy, high performance, the ability to put in long hours, and to show up refreshed and poised, regardless of what was going on in their lives, around them, or inside of them. In those days, few of us questioned the inherent bias in those leadership models. Those traits were those of privileged people for whom a particular brand of leadership was initially fashioned.

For the rest of us, especially as young up-and-coming leaders, we strove to show that we could lead according to those standards despite not having the support and accouterments of the chosen few. That evolved into causing many of us to do what I call “leading like superwomen.”  

Look up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane. No, It’s Superman!

Faster than a speeding bullet.

More Powerful than a locomotive

Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

Those lines inscribed my youthful fantasies of superheroes, which eerily aligned with the popular leadership teaching of the day. They informed my image of being a leader as I started my career. 

The adventures of Superman set the stage for other superhero characters, including Superwoman, who became Lois Lane’s female alter ego. These superheroes had powers of superhuman strength, could fly, and were invulnerable. They also wore masks to hide their true identities.

In retrospect, this script sounds similar to the one I and other women of my generation adopted to lead and advance in corporations and companies that weren’t created for us. Yet we strove to succeed anyway. And we did. But at what cost?

How did we get here?

I wonder how many women of my generation unconsciously adopted leadership patterns that mimicked these superheroes and took pride in leading like superwomen. However, they did not label their actions as such. Many of us were the first or the only women in male-dominated spaces, and we felt we had to prove ourselves and demonstrate superhuman endurance and strength because we carried the weight of all of womanhood on our shoulders. If we messed up in these spaces, we felt we’d ruin the chances for other women. So, we strove to be perfect. We overthought and overanalyzed to avoid making mistakes that would be foreboding for other women.

Look up in the sky…

In my case, the privilege of being the first and often the only Black woman meant I simultaneously navigated the paradox of high visibility and invisibility. 

Many of us felt spotlighted. We walked into a room, and the only Black woman was sure to be seen. As the only Black woman, my projects got noticed and were often subjected to extra scrutiny. That hypervisibility created a sensitivity to living corporate life under a microscope. We were subjected to harsh feedback we didn’t ask for and that others didn’t get, and criticism for behaviors that others were praised for. 

Yet when it came to input and voice, we seemed to be invisible, not seen for who we really were. We were expected to assimilate into a culture insensitive to and ignorant of the distinct voices and perspectives of people who looked like us.

Faster than…

The expectation of leading while Black and woman was that we had to keep up with the pace set forth in the culture. We scurried from meeting to meeting, cramming 14 hours of work into 10-hour days. The pace was an indicator of productivity—producing more widgets that translated into more profit. But at what cost? What does it really profit a woman to gain the world of performance metrics and lose her soul? But in the eyes of the capitalistic corporation, did superwomen have souls? To these so-called industry titans, weren’t we just cogs in the organizational machine designed to churn out more widgets?

More Powerful

These leadership models aimed to have us show power by not showing weakness. Not being vulnerable. As women in the corporation, we dared not show emotion, as our emotions were seen negatively. In contrast, men’s emotions were seen as strengths. Our power, if any, was attributed to us, was seen in our ability to remain poised and restrained under the most adverse and intense of interactions. And if we asserted ourselves against assaults or challenges, our power was labeled as anger and discounted as irrational, emotional women, especially as Black women.

Able to Leap Tall Buildings in A Single Bound

Like Superwoman, we leaped through hoops to show we not only belonged but could succeed and checked all the boxes. We completed all the tasks and we did all the things. Yet, too often, decision-makers claimed too many of us needed more time to prepare for the next promotion or leadership assignment. We prepared, continuously improved, worked twice as hard as…well, you know the rest. We demonstrated that we could leap over the highest hurdle and navigate the most formidable barriers. At what cost? 

Has Few, if Any Limits

Back then, superheroes had few limits—they were, well, superhuman. Kryptonite was the one element that could fail  Superman. Other than that, this superhero could live beyond limits, flying and fighting and saving the “American way!” And women who lead like superheroes deny and defy limits in their own lives. They operate as if they need little to no sleep, can eat on the go, not work out, put in long hours, deny their bodies of rest, and rush through the day from meeting to meeting or from call to call with no time to think, reflect, restore or recharge. Some take pride in not taking their vacations or being available while on vacation. Living limitlessly typically leaves one more limited in the long run, not less limited. Leading in superhuman ways catches up with us mere mortals. 

Wins at Any Cost

Superheroes were about winning—saving the day, rescuing the city, defeating the villains, and gaining applause, feeding a superhuman ego. Too many women fell into this comparison trap of competing and keeping up to save our part in the organizational drama. We’d come to believe the hype and began to live out a script that we failed to distinguish from reality and played the part until there was no longer a part to play.

Saves the Day

Like all good superheroes, the goal is to rescue those in trouble and save the day. Many of us were socialized by being given kudos for saving the day and performing superhuman feats. This brought accolades but not acceptance or inclusion. This also applies to our personal lives as wives and mothers, doubling the pressure to be high performers.

It is time for a shift.

For the past few years, I’ve aimed to shift my leadership from leading like a superwoman to leading like a whole woman or a well-woman. I’ve decided my well-being is far more valuable than leading and performing according to some mythical, stereotypic standard that didn’t truly reward us anyway.

Reflect on these behaviors and be honest about which ones you’ve adopted. Then, explore why you’ve adopted these behaviors. At some point, you gained some type of reward or positive feedback from leading in this way. I ask you now to consider whether this pace, mindset, and pattern of leading are sustainable for a healthy you. 

What is it costing you to suit up, put the S on your chest, and the superhero cape on your back day in and day out? 

Aren’t you tired yet?

In my next blog, I will share the traits of a well-woman leader. Let me say now that the first step is to see yourself as a well-woman leader, a whole person with intricate needs, and discard the mythic image of a Superwoman. She’s not just mythical; she’s unreal, not human, and detrimental to the well-being of yourself and the people and places you lead.

During this month of celebrating women’s history, I want you to pay attention to how you manifest the superwoman leadership motif. Let’s start now by writing our own women’s history and creating a healthier model of leadership for this generation and the next.

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