Why We’re Not Sure We Want to Be #1

Contributed by CEO Coach Henna Inam

“I am a really good #2. I don’t want to be #1.”
“I really love the job I’m in and don’t want my boss’s job. It just seems too political.”
“I think I could do my boss’s job, but I don’t really want that much stress in my life right now.”
“My kids are young, I’m already working as hard as I can, I can’t really take on that stretch project.”

In March, I spent did a lot of speaking at conferences and connecting with women as part of Women’s History Month. As women approach me with questions, I’m struck by the ambivalence I see in many to pursue the top job. I understand. I actually wrote about why so many women drop out of corporate America. I was one of them.

For those who want to stay, I advise them to get clear (as hard as it is given the trade-offs) about work life priorities and stop being ambivalent. Ambivalence keeps us stuck. It zaps our energy. Here are the five mindsets I’ve observed that keep us stuck. Do any of these apply to you?

Five Mindsets that Make Us Ambivalent to Lead

1. “Leadership is about exerting control over others and I don’t want to do that.” Women see legitimate power as “power to make an impact” rather than “power over a group of people.” Yet, “command and control” type of leadership is often what we see displayed around us. For women, social acceptance (being “liked,” being part of a community) is much more important than men, and if we perceive that leadership involves “exerting power over others” then we are reluctant to lead. To be successful as leaders, we need to be able to make tough, sometimes unpopular decisions. We need to be able to reframe these decisions from “bossing people,” to making decisions necessary to make a difference that’s important to us. Connecting to our leadership purpose is especially important.

2. “Taking on a leadership role will add more stress to my life.” Most of us lead pretty 24/7 lives and have the burden of the second shift as the primary caregivers for family. Actually data suggests that people at higher levels in organizations experience less stress than those at lower levels. Stress is caused by a feeling of “lack of control” over our circumstances, not the circumstances themselves. Higher level positions can give us greater control and access to resources. We can reframe leadership as an opportunity to bring people together to make a difference. We can use our relationship building skills to tap into resources that weren’t there before. If we are passionate about something it actually energizes us rather than depletes us.

3. “I need to improve myself before I can be a leader.” Fear of failure and lack of self-confidence are some of our biggest barriers. We often think we’re not worthy of leading because we’re missing important skill sets and need to have mastered them before we can lead. All leadership requires is the desire to make something better for ourselves and others. The rest we learn along the way.

4. “I need to lead like my boss to be effective.” Actually, we are most effective when we lead from who we are rather than try to emulate others’ leadership styles. This starts with greater self-awareness of who we are and the difference we want to make. Developing a clear articulation of our own leadership brand allows us to be at our most effective.

5. “I can make a bigger difference where I am than at the top.” Frankly, I am conflicted about this one. I left a high level corporate role to start my company. I wanted to make a difference in an area that was important to me. So it feels ironic to add this to the list. Many of us choose to keep ourselves at lower levels in the hierarchy, convinced that we can make a bigger difference there. If you’ve chosen to stay in an organization, ask yourself whether it is really true that people lower in the hierarchy have more power to make a difference than those at the top.

Data Confirms Our Ambivalent Mindsets

Research from 2011 from the Institute of Leadership and Management [PDF] suggests that women are more ambivalent about careers. The European study indicated that:

  • 70% of males had high or very high levels of self-confidence, compared to 50% of the women.
  • Half the women admitted to feelings of self-doubt compared to 31% of men.
  • 20% of men said they would apply for a role they weren’t fully qualified for, compared to 14% of women.

Our Future Leaders Have Similar Mindsets

Do you have a young girl you would like to be a confident leader? I do – my 14 year old daughter. I was struck by research from the Girl Scouts [PDF] about how only 39% of girls want to be leaders. While 92% believe anyone can be a leader, only 21% believe they themselves have the qualities of a leader. According to the research [PDF], the biggest factor that drove a girl’s desire to lead is her confidence in her skills. On the other hand, social acceptance (don’t want to speak in front of others, don’t want to be laughed at, don’t want to seem bossy, people might not like me), and fear of failure are some of the biggest detractors to a desire to lead.

The research shows that to re-engage girls in leadership, not only do we need to help them feel confident in themselves, we need to change the model of who a leader is. Significantly more girls than boys believe that they would want to be the kind of leader who “stands up for their beliefs and values,” “who brings people together to get things done,” “who tries to change the world for the better.” We need new, more balanced, role models of leadership (among both men and women) that reflect a definition of leader who brings people together to affect positive change.

Our Collective Call To Action

If we want to prepare future generations to lead boldly, we need to be the role models our girls (and our boys) can look up to. As a TEDxWomen organizer in Atlanta, I recently had the opportunity to have John Brock (CEO of Coca Cola Enterprises) talk about why he is a strong proponent of women in leadership positions. In his TEDx speech, he talked about how growing up, his mother was his leadership hero and it framed his view of why women made great leaders.

Let’s take a moment to think about what prevents us from seeing ourselves as a leader who deserves to make a big difference, and then find a way to reframe this. My view of this is, if we’re breathing (do a quick check here), we have a leader within us just bursting to get out. So, let’s focus on the difference we are inspired to make, rather than all the barriers in the way. It will give birth to the transformational leader inside each of us.

Henna Inam is CEO of Transformational Leadership Inc., a company focused on helping women achieve their potential to be transformational leaders. A former C-Suite executive with Fortune 500 companies, her passion is to help leaders be successful, deeply engaged, and create organizations that drive breakthroughs in innovation, growth and engagement. Connect @hennainam. Subscribe to her blog at

2 Responses

  1. Nathacha Emerant

    Thank you for being so honest. Nowadays the trend is to make women feel bad if they chose not to be a leader and to instead get a job which leaves them time to be a good wife and mother. I am currently in such a situation where everybody is pushing me to climb the ladder without thinking about my family, it feels like for women nowadays having a healthy marriage and look after your children are meaningless.

  2. Thanks Nathacha for your comment. I truly believe leadership is authentic self-expression that creates value for ourselves and our stakeholders. The key is for each of us to determine for ourselves what is the kind of leader we want to be and the leadership impact we want to have(in our families,in our careers etc).