Turning Obstacles into Opportunities for Women Leaders

If you focus on the barriers—and they are everywhere—you’ll get overwhelmed and even use them as excuses for not moving toward your goal. Instead focus on your goal, look at where you are and where you want to go and break that down into manageable goals. Make that your focus, not the barriers. ~Executive Woman Leader

Leading in any organization these days can be challenging, especially for women. Faced with the intersectional barriers of race, gender and more, these obstacles can sap your energy and motivation. But don’t quit, Don’t give up.

Following are five things you can do to turn obstacles into opportunities. Take a moment to review this list in light of any obstacle you are currently facing and complete the action step associated with each item. 

  1. Maintain a positive, can-do attitude. I know this can be a difficult one, especially in light of the stereotypes we face as women, especially women of color. And sometimes keeping that determined face on the outside that is in direct contrast to the weariness you wear inside can be a struggle, even a disconnect. Before the weariness overwhelms you, take some time to identify your leadership strengths. Take an inventory of your strengths and keep the list before you. Similar to a gratitude journal, this list of your strengths will remind you of your value when others may not see your value. Reviewing this list will affirm why you do what you do the way you do it. Reviewing this list will shift your attitude to what is true for you and away from focusing on other people’s assessment of you.  Action Step: Identify your leadership strengths to help you maintain a positive attitude.
  2. Focus on your leadership purpose and goals.  Discover or reclaim your leadership purpose. In my book, “Influence Starts with “I,” I define leadership purpose as a purpose statement for leaders. This purpose “helps to align all the various components of your life (work, home, community) into an integrated whole that provides coherence to what you do in any given context at any given time. Your purpose is the reason you exist and lead the way you do.” Reviewing your leadership purpose statement shifts your perspective from the obstacle to the purpose. Through the lens of purpose you begin to reevaluate the obstacle in light of your goals, and your distinct strategy for addressing the obstacle. Through reviewing your leadership purpose, you may find the obstacle is not something blocking you, but actually something redirecting you! Action Step: Review your leadership purpose statement.
  3. Enlist the help and support of your network.  Too often you might try to address obstacles and barriers by yourself. As a woman leading in today’s complex environments, you need a squad, a posse, a cohort of other leaders who you can turn to for advice, support and guidance. And you must be a part of other leaders’ network to offer the similar support. Action Step: Make a list of who in your network can help provide perspective on a potential obstacle. Reach out to the people on this list and have a conversation about the potential obstacle.
  4. Discover feedback from your network and be willing and ready to hear honest feedback.  You need feedback on your blindspots, those behaviors that are hindering you from being as effective as you can be. Now keep in mind, sometimes the barriers you face are directly tied to the stereotypes associated with being a woman. Other leaders may see you as “aggressive” instead of “assertive”. Listen for those code words that suggest lack of “fit”–another code aimed at keeping people who are different out of a closed culture. So, this action is about gaining feedback from your network on the leadership behaviors and actions that you can work on. If you are truly over-talking and overpowering others, then you need the feedback on how those behaviors play in your organizational culture. Once feedback starts focusing on stereotypes aimed at your group, (for instance, “all Black women are so loud”), you have to determine not to let those stereotypes live in your head. That’s why it’s important to have trusted people in your network that can help you ferret out the solid feedback from the stereotypes. Action Step: Reach out to a trusted advisor or two and get feedback on how you are perceived in your organization. Be committed to work on gap areas they help you identify.
  5. Do the Work. For any obstacle identified, you have to do the work necessary to overcome the obstacle and create an opportunity. Spend some time contemplating what it will take for you to overcome this obstacle. Envision what success will look like for you once this obstacle has been removed.

Here’s a quick video I did for AthenaOnline that sums up these steps. The link expires on 9/24. Until then check it out:


Women leaders, you have what it takes to succeed. Succeeding in leading will require you to overcome or navigate around or through obstacles in your path. Someone once even said, “Obstacles are the path.” So, expect them. Yet, with these five tips, you can develop your strategy for dealing with any obstacle and move forward.


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