Guest Blog – I wouldn’t let her fly my plane: notes on being a female leader

Sarah Hughes, CEO of Mind in Cambridgeshire and ACEVO member since December 2014
Sarah Hughes, CEO of Mind in Cambridgeshire and ACEVO member since December 2014

I don’t know about you but still after 23 years I have to resist the urge to look behind me when someone asks me for a decision. I wonder why they are asking me, a nano second of confusion, I’m still a girl from Finsbury Park for peats sake. Despite my track record and success I still have that weird low pitched voice that whispers ‘it’s not skill, it’s luck’. Turns out, for women in Leadership positions the feeling of being a fraud an imposter is common, who knew? Thankfully I discovered this quite early on and have been able to put that low voice on mute at those critical moments of organisational crisis or when self abasement really won’t help me get that contract. I have imagined myself in meerkat pose watching for that predator that might suddenly appear from beneath my desk to expose me. Thankfully this feeling is not the one that preoccupies my anxiety any more, it’s the notion of integrity.

My aunt once said to me that I was born an adult and throughout my life I have been regarded as a matriarch, in fact when I was 15 my scout leaders name was Raksha (mother wolf – Jungle Book). I think that this has both enhanced and at times damaged my role as Leader. I believe a good leader is quite simply someone who is compassionate, inspirational, resilient, empowering, knowledgeable and open, some might say that this is what a good mother looks like too – but most people would balk at the idea that their leader was somehow channeling their mother but the parallels are there. I can hear some of my team choking on their coffee as they read this, look away now guys.

But, of course female leadership is more complex than that. The good mother analogy is lazy and if a male counterpart suggested this to me I would most certainly give him the death stare. The critical factor for me though is about using all of my natural mostly maternal qualities in a way that doesn’t disempower my people. I have come to realise that whilst common today in actual families, having the kids live with you way into adulthood within organisational life is weird. I realise that I don’t want to be wiping faces with my saliva laden tissue forever and that an effective workforce is like family sometimes but critically is not family. Organisational growth, change, service diversification and pressure realign relationships, a maternal leader in my view may not be able to hold people or herself to account.

The best manager I’ve ever had, Oneal, tried to warn me of this some years ago. He once said ‘Sarah, you are an extraordinary Leader. I know that staff and colleagues will support you; they will follow you over a mountain. But do you know what; they will be left bloodied and bruised at the bottom because you won’t have taught them how to open their own parachutes’. I spend much of my time now showing people what to do, no longer metaphorically tying them to my own back hoping my small parachute will support us all.

Being a female leader poses unique challenges, the slowing down of your career trajectory to have children or to look after ailing family or dealing with the joys of juggling family life or competing with male impetus. A particular quirk I must quickly mention is the unconscious and often covert dislike of women who are powerful and dynamic. I have spied male and female colleagues retreat when I challenge with a kind of contempt or fear that I might fly into a neurotic episode, of course sometimes I do but it’s almost as if they must be reassured that my ‘time of the month’ or ‘stress’ must be the root cause, now despite the hormonal truth I don’t wear a red cloak at these times of irrationality and incompetency and indeed have full mental capacity. Strong women strike fear and suspicion, people feel awkward and uncomfortable, evil women in fairy tales are witches and evil men are just dastardly, it’s peculiar – right? This is the underbelly of female leadership and I embrace it all.

Finally, I once heard a male trustee from a bygone era telling another one that I was a good choice, tough and strong willed, clever. I should have stopped listening because he then said ‘I wouldn’t let her fly my plane though’, I laughed. I laughed because I thought ‘bloody right, I don’t know how to fly planes’.

Sarah Hughes, Chief Executive

Mind in Cambridgeshire

@donteducateblog @mindincambs

Find out more about ACEVO’s Women CEOs Special Interest Group (SIG).

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