Reimagining Leadership: A journey of evolution embedding love and joy
Theme: Everyday Leadership: Leading self, others, and organisations.
by Ankita Mishra
Ankita Mishra is a PhD researcher in the University of Sheffield. Her research explores the domestic abuse experiences of Minoritised women during the COVID-19 pandemic in the UK. She is interested in working with and learning from communities to foster knowledge production and social action. Her research interests include people’s lived experiences of gender based violence, healing, justice and ways to foster social change. She strongly believes in public engagement of academic research by exploring the role of media and creative arts in reaching out to the public.
We have constantly been told by the society, media and other agents that a leader often looks like a tall old man; who is tough, dominating, has a lot of power and influence. These images and definitions are deeply embedded in the patriarchal and colonial ideas of a leader. This often builds up a dominant narrative that shapes who we believe a leader is and what leadership looks like. It tends to exclude women, especially women from marginalised backgrounds, from aspiring to be leaders. In cases where women do take up such positions, they are always under the pressure to ‘look’ a certain way and ‘be’ a certain way.
I remember how in my high school years, when I was elected to a position in the school council, people asked me, ‘You are so emotional, do you really think you can handle the responsibility that comes with this position?’. In my former workplace, when I started my role as a Lecturer as a 23 year old woman, I was regularly reminded how the role carries a lot of mentoring, guiding and advising responsibilities. And because I was ‘tiny (or short)’ and ‘too young’, I needed to dress in a certain way for students to take me seriously as their professor (of course, I did not yield to those pressures!). A year later I had a 23 year old male colleague join the workplace and, no prizes for guessing, he never had to hear these things, while I continued to have my weekly dosage of reminders during my entire time there.
I have often wondered why leadership has to be such an isolating experience burdened with certain pressures and expectations of building an image of perfection and expertise.
Why does strength always mean being tough?
Can I not be a leader if I don’t wear a business suit, don’t put on makeup and come from a very ordinary background in society?
Does leadership always have to be about power and dominance? Why can it not be about care, nurturing and love, the joyful experience of connecting with other people and learning from them? What if I wanted to inspire people but not dominate or control them? Grappling with these questions, I have often found that despite having care and nurturance, vision and insight, a lot of people tend to shy away from being a leader as they think they do not fit the mould that society has set for leaders.
Reflecting on unlearning and re-conceptualising leadership, I often find these unsung leaders in my life: my mother who nurtured me with the belief that I can be whoever I want to unapologetically, who cared for me, inspired and believed in me and gave me the freedom to dream; my maternal grandmother who provided unconditional support and motivated her daughter-in-law by taking up caring responsibilities for my cousin so that my aunt could pursue her dream. Are these ‘ordinary’ women not leaders in their own right. They envisioned, loved, inspired, nurtured, gave wings to fly and transformed lives joyfully. What more do we expect from leaders?
I think it’s high time we put aside limited narrow conceptions and constructions; and move towards new ways of seeing leaders for who they are and reimagine leadership. I feel leaders come from all walks of life in many forms, shapes, sizes and ages. A leader does not need to be tough, dominant or an expert, a leader can be emotional, vulnerable and gentle.
Leadership need not be about power, it can be about joy, love and connection. It should not require anyone to be a perfect role model when it can be a journey of evolution, exploration and learning together.