Leadership: A Woman's Perspective - The Early Years
By Pepper de Callier
Part 2 of a 5 part series
In examining the lives and career elements of our four female leaders who were introduced in last week’s column I wanted to begin with their childhoods. Was there something different about these women as children and adolescents that would indicate leadership ability? Is there a common thread in their personalities or attitudes that might indicate they were leadership material at an early age? Did they know early on that they wanted to be leaders and were therefore driven to excel? These are the questions that began my interviews with each of them. Here’s what they had to say.
Was there something different about these women as young girls growing up? In the sense that none were child prodigies in any area the answer is no. They were good students, but so are many other girls. Two were ‘only’ children, but two had siblings, so there are no clues there either. None of these women were ‘driven’ to lead in their youth, in fact, two told me their early career goal was just to survive.
There were common threads, however, which surfaced early in their lives: discipline, optimism, reflection, and the ability to delay gratification. Klara Starkova and Zuzana Reznickova both attribute a large part of their success today to the discipline they learned in extra-curricular activities as a child, such as swimming, tennis, language training, and learning to play a musical instrument. Zuzana: “There is no question that the focus and discipline of sports as a young girl definitely had a positive impact on me later in life.” Klara adds a real gem of wisdom she learned from these activities: “The positive reinforcement through the demonstration of competence had a definite impact on my self-confidence.” I would add that these experiences probably also added a degree of stamina, or persistence in these women as they were maturing.
Sometimes there is a fine line between determination and optimism. Renata Mrazova recalls learning this from her grandfather, who has been a mentor and an ‘idol’ to her. His family had lost their business under the communist regime, but he never became bitter about that. Instead, he told young Renata to “Never give up!” and he demonstrated those words by his example—a memory that she cherishes to this day. This determination is the foundation for belief in yourself, which gives way to self-confidence, which in turn leads to optimism, or a strong belief that you will prevail.
Renata was later to demonstrate this in her own life when she was refused admittance as a student to university for what was most likely political reasons. What was her response—acceptance of defeat? No. She applied for a job at the university as a typist, viewing this rejection as a temporary setback. In essence, she learned how to delay gratification until the timing was right, which it eventually was and she got into university after the fall of the regime in 1989. This ability to delay gratification is a powerful tool in life as well as in a career.
Alena Ludrovska told me about an unusual mixture of reflection and discipline that formed an early foundational piece of what would become a very successful career. “I guess people may have looked at me as a leader because I always had a quick opinion about things. My view of everything was ‘black or white’—no gray areas.” Oddly enough, though, she began to notice that her quick opinions had an alienating effect on those around her. Gradually, in reflecting on this situation, Alena began to realize two very important things: life was not black and white and one of her weaknesses was that she was so focused on solving problems she didn’t listen to what other people had to say about them. The first point was truly one of reflection, but the second one would take a lot of discipline to remedy, especially for a young and very opinionated person. Today, Alena’s accomplishments as a leader have provided the material for case studies and she views her ability to listen to others as her most important competence as a leader. Not a bad result for a little reflection and some discipline.
So, what are the key lessons here about youth and leadership for us to learn from these women? Have any differences surfaced between women and men leaders in the early years?
To answer the first question, it’s clear that discipline, the ability to postpone gratification, and optimism are important foundational elements for a young person to master, not only for leadership, but for their general level of satisfaction and happiness in life. There is a strong message here for young parents, too: teach these skills to your children—make sure they have opportunities to demonstrate competence like Klara did—and the life rewards will be significant. To those of you, like me, who did not learn these things as a young person, don’t be discouraged. You can still learn these traits and use them to craft a wonderful future.
In answer to the second question: No. Not yet.
Good luck on your way up!