Conjure up an image of a powerful leader. Who do you see? Is it a man? Probably. Was that intentional? Doubt it. Significant? Of course. As female leadership maven, Susan R. Madsen explains in her Raising Girls To Become Leaders TEDTalk, when people are asked to draw an image of a leader, the default is almost-aways to draw a man.
It’s 2021, and we’re still weird about women and power and powerful women. Much like eating a salad doesn’t make you a vegetarian, being male doesn’t make you a leader. Yet, as Madsen points out, leadership is still considered a masculine trait by ingrained societal default. Normalizing and encouraging leadership traits, actions, and dreams in young girls are how we shift this misperception.
When girls are raised with the inherent knowledge that they can lead, they don’t go around looking for evidence and permission to do so. Instead, they naturally embody the leader archetype, and the world reflects this back to them. Wanting your daughter to be chosen or hoping she’s granted permission to lead is like rewatching Titanic and willing the boat not to sink.
Being an active participant in molding her identity into that of a leader can be life-changing. We don’t shift our generational narratives about women and girls by waiting for someone else to do it. It’s through our intentional daily actions and conversations that we raise our girls into leaders.
Here are four easy, research-backed actions you can adopt to nurture your daughter’s leadership identity:
Four Actions to Raise Your Girl Into a Natural Leader
1. There Is No One Alive Who Is “Youer” Than You
Dr. Seuss knew a few things, and Madsen’s research correlates. By overtly stating to girls the natural talents and positive inclinations we see in them, we offer them permission in two ways. First, to recognize and see the magic of their individuality. Second, to lean into actualizing and harnessing these powerful aspects of self.
The old way is general and often negative: “Naomi. Don’t be so pushy. That’s not nice. Be nice.”
The new way is specific and accurate: “Honey, I can see how when something is important to you, you put a lot of effort into making it happen. You have the gifts of determination and grit. I appreciate that about you.”
2. It’s Not Bragging If It’s True
Girls and women need a tap on the shoulder about 30 percent more than men. We’re less likely to claim our positive traits, skills, and successes publicly even if we have proof.
Nudging girls to go after leadership roles, positions, and dreams that scare them makes it more likely for them to seriously consider the opportunity, reflect, and then take action.
A key here is the ability to get out of our way. Choose to become conscious of the narrative you were raised with and notice when it makes you want to keep your child playing small. That’s your stuff, not theirs, and you don’t have to pass it on.
3. She’s Not Bossy, She’s A Leader
Whether you believe leaders are born or made, this trait can be encouraged from early on. And it is in boys, who are raised to form self-focused, individualistic identities.
According to Madsen, girls’ identities tend to be more wrapped up in relationships, which is why they’re heavily molded by other people’s definitions and summations of them.
Knowing this, we can take responsibility for the influence we have on how girls see themselves and play our part in fostering a leadership identity. These influences look like:
- Encourage girls to go after leadership roles in clubs, at school, and among peers.
- Foster open communication and healthy debate at home, creating opportunities for everyone to make a stand for their unique thoughts.
- Encourage reading and life-long learning. Phenomenal leaders are readers.
- Showing self-compassion. By watching you take risks, sometimes succeed, and be okay with failing when you don’t, your children inherently learn boldness and resilience.
4. Finding Your Own North Star
Everyone needs a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Women are more likely to step forward and lead if they feel a strong sense of purpose or calling.
Often, it’s the things we’re naturally drawn to as children that help leave clues about what we might find fulfilling and meaningful as an adult.
Noticing and encouraging girls to pursue what they love, regardless of social stigma and repressive (and outdated) job stability fears, is the parenting equivalent of being a coach. It says, “You’re here with a unique talent pool, for a unique reason. You’ve got this. I believe in you.”
Raising The Bar On Raising Girls
The deal with changing things that are not working for everyone is: We cannot change them out there, in the vast and general world. If we want more female leaders out there, our day-to-day parenting must lay the foundation. It looks like being intentional with the words we use with our daughters, being conscious with parental actions, and ruthless in questioning inherited beliefs about women and girls.
My grandmother says that we shouldn’t tell my four-year-old cousin that she’s a princess because she might grow up thinking too highly of herself. I will not be supporting or continuing this narrative. Instead, I will tell my niece she’s brave, clever, witty, and can grow up to be whoever she wants to be.
That’s the path that leads to six years from now when at age 10, she’s asked to imagine an influential leader and her mind naturally conjures up a bright image of her smiling self.
Written by Roxana Bouwer
Top photo by Gary Ellis on Unsplash