Women Have Always Been Leaders - Part 1

Updated: Nov 11, 2019

By Leyah Valgardson, Founder of Leader's Voice, Women's Executive Leadership Coach and a Feminine Culture Champion.

"Leadership is in the very make up of our DNA. It's the decision of women that have changed the world." -Leyah Valgardson

It’s the end of a long day. You’re within a few steps of the sanctuary of your car, your apartment, or your bedroom, and can only count the seconds before you slide in and close the door. There’s safety there that brings a sigh of relief. Yet in that moment, all you’ve been holding inside the past few hours – frustration, anger, exhaustion – comes flooding down your cheeks. It has been a long day. 

Perhaps you were overlooked in a meeting. Maybe it was the condescending tone of dismissal to the painstaking work you put in on an important project. Or the promotion you’ve been vying for has passed you by. Again. No matter the reason, you’re tired. Tired of all of the effort and none of the reward. Tired of feeling like an imposter who will never “arrive.” Tired of not having a seat at the table. You wonder if all of the effort is even worth it. And then you become emotional. But that’s just what women do, right? And part of you hates yourself for falling victim to emotional tears again. 

Yet those tears are real. Your experiences are real. 

Can you relate?

Every woman in business has probably felt that way at least once in her career. And in those moments there’s an absolute truth that must never be forgotten …

Women have always been leaders. 

Leadership is in the very makeup of our DNA. It’s the decisions of women that have changed the world. Women throughout history have utilized their innate gifts and qualities to lead, using their voices. Qualities like empathy, resiliency, and strength. These are the qualities of women who lead – radical, rational, impactful leaders. Let’s explore …

Born in (present-day) Macedonia under humble circumstances, Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu knew at a young age that she had a special calling to serve God as a missionary. She entered the Sisters of Loreto, with whom she took her vows to become a nun; then on known as Mother Teresa. After a few months of training in Dublin, she departed for India, where she taught high school in Calcutta. The extreme poverty she encountered outside of the walls of that school was too much for her to simply overlook. 

Mother Teresa didn’t merely feel a few moments of empathy for those suffering in poverty and then continue on with her life. She did something. Her goal was to simply help one person at a time, and she did just that. Through a difficult and lengthy process, she left her teaching position to work among the poorest of the poor. From her choice to do something, she did everything for the one she was focused on. She eventually started her own order, “The Missionaries of Charity” in Calcutta, which eventually morphed into “The Society of Missionaries.” With upwards of one million co-workers, it has spread all over the world, providing help to the poorest of the poor and the helpless. 

Standing tall at 5 feet, she was a small woman but a giant of a leader. She did something only few of us are brave enough to do: She saw the value in every living being, enough to dedicate her life to the care of any and all. In so doing, she created a movement of love. She created change one person at a time.

And that is what leaders do. They create change

In a moment of “no more!” Ms. Rosa Parks, a seemingly “normal” woman, started a revolution. She was pushed to the back of the bus simply because of the color of her skin. She resented that and, in fact, even challenged the ridiculousness of it before, yet it was the world she lived in. She took the first seat in the “colored” section and breathed a sigh of agitated relief. A few stops later as the bus began to fill she was told to give up her seat for a white man. She, a woman of color, had to stand while a man sat. In that moment, she made a decision. She refused and stubbornly stayed seated. The air around her shifted to that of confrontation and unease, but she held her ground. Why? Because she was tired!

“People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired,” wrote Parks in her autobiography, “but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically… No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”

Lawyer E.D. Parks “… had hoped for years to find a courageous black person of unquestioned honesty and integrity to become the plaintiff in a case that might become the test of the validity of segregation laws.” Parks’ honesty, integrity, and I will add grit, helped her make the courageous decision to stay seated. 

“The leaders of the local black community organized a bus boycott that began the day Parks was convicted of violating the segregation laws. Led by a young Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the boycott lasted more than a year… and ended only when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that bus segregation was unconstitutional. Over the next half-century, Parks became a nationally recognized symbol of dignity and strength in the struggle to end entrenched racial segregation.” She was lovingly referred to as “the mother of the Civil Rights movement” – a fitting title. From that one decision, the world would never be the same. 

And that is what leaders do. They create change.

During a time of great political and financial unrest in the United Kingdom, another great female leader emerged: Margaret Thatcher. Appropriately nicknamed “The Iron Lady” for her uncompromising politics and leadership style, Ms. Thatcher was the longest serving and only female British prime minister to this day. It took quite a lot of “iron” to remain unwavering amidst a controversial and sexist political environment. Ms. Thatcher herself said as late as 1970, “There will not be a woman prime minister in my lifetime – the male population is too prejudiced.” 

Still, even Ms. Thatcher had yet to realize her potential and strength. Just a few short years later in 1979, she was elected the first and only female prime minister. Under her leadership, she was able to “… reduce the influence of trade unions, privatize certain industries, scale back public benefits, and change the terms of political debate.” From the many decisions that led to her eventual election to prime minister and the good work she was able to do as PM, the world would never be the same. 

And that is what leaders do. They create change.

Not all leaders will see such profound and lasting impact like these three exemplary women, but women who lead do create change. Leading doesn’t require a following of thousands. Leading doesn’t demand impressive and wide-reaching change. When one affects even one other person, they are a leader. Given that criterion, each one of us can lead. 

The innate qualities of women make us leaders, as we are always affecting change. As mothers – those who create life and those who care for the living – we lead. As nurturers who are empathetic and aware, we lead. As organizers who bring people together and make things happen, we lead.  

What’s the point in all of this? Women are leaders! At times you may forget that. We’ve all had those days when we’ve felt stuck; felt like an impostor; felt overlooked and under-appreciated. Felt overwhelmed and just plain tired. Yet in the choices you make and the change you create, great recognition will come to you. And one of the greatest is to be known as a woman who leads. It’s a part of who you are! So, on those tough days, remember: You are a woman, and women have always been leaders. 

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