No one gives you permission to lead

March 15, 2015

shutterstock_110890325 (532x800)

In the past year, I have talked to several women who were active during the women’s movement in the ’70s and ’80s.  They are dismayed at the increase in misogyny they are seeing around them – globally and in their own communities.  I saw more attention to International Women’s Day in my community this year – perhaps this is why.  I was asked to speak at three events – these are my adapted speaking notes.

“No one gives you permission to lead.”

These were the words of advice from a friend and mentor many years ago.

He was driving me home from a committee meeting and remember precisely where we were because it was a like whack in the side of the head; it was shortly after that I made the decision to run for mayor.

There been other moments like this that have helped me along my path to leadership. And not just mentors, bullies too.

The first time I stood in Council Chambers was in 1993.  I was part of a delegation urging the City to take action on climate change. I was the last to speak and very nervous.  I had practiced my presentation and I nailed that 5 minutes.  After I was finished, a member of Council decided to tear a strip off me.  Who did I think I was?  Why was I wasting their time?

I credit this gentleman to this day for his unusual style of mentorship and for giving me the push I needed to run for council twenty years ago.

Leadership is a decision and in making that decision you are making a commitment to act – to step forward, to have your say, to make a difference.

I wish I could say I fully understood the implications of the decision I was making in that moment in Council Chambers. I didn’t. That came with time. I just knew treating a member of the public like that was wrong and I was going do something about it.

There are many things that try to stop us from stepping forward, from having a say, from making a difference. One of them is that incessant inner voice that holds us back from so much. We all have one. I wish someone had told me that earlier – it would have saved some anguish. This inner creature goes by many names – your saboteur, gremlin or troll.

Warning!  Just like the real-life trolls that live on social media – do not feed the troll. Do not reason with the troll. The troll will always win because, just like a real-life sociopath, they will do and say anything to get what they want.

Step forward anyways.

The only thing I know for sure is that when you do step forward you will get your ass kicked and that the trolls – inside and out – will be relentless.  And for women, doubly so, and unfortunately, over the last 20 years, I think it is getting worse.

There is a quote in the book The Confidence Code which leaped off the page at me:

“The more a woman succeeds, the worse the vitriol gets.  It’s not just her competence that is called into question; it’s her very character.”

I don’t need a book to tell me this – it has been my lived experience. But I am glad it did – it helps with the sanity.

Nellie McClung

Nellie McClung – Wikimedia Commons

Nellie McClung fought for women to be recognized as “a person” in Canada and because of Nellie’s work, Agnes McPhail was able to become the first woman elected to Canadian Parliament.  I wonder what the vitriol was like for these two women or, worse, where would we be today if they hadn’t stepped forward. I wonder what it must have been like for the trailblazers in my community, for women in politics.


Agnes McPhail – Wikimedia Commons

When all else fails – just act. That is what these women did because they knew action changes things.

It changes the world.  It changes you. When you act, you step forward and lead. When you act – you build confidence – especially when you fail. Even when you do it in oh-so-a-public way as I have – winning five elections but also losing three along the way.

And as frightening as that might sound, the truth is you never do it alone – although sometimes you will feel very alone. You take two things with you – besides your troll.

DSC_0070 (640x426)

The first thing is your values. Take time to know them well and reflect on them often. This is a photo of my nephew. This photo captures two important values for me that are radiating from him – courage and the joy that comes from being brave and grabbing life by the tail.

And the second thing you take with you is community. Leadership is about community. It is a state of being not a position – a way of being. It is not about connecting up and down through a hierarchy, or your position and who is below you. It is about connecting across a community. At its best, leadership is about creating space for others to lead and excel. And when we achieve that, we create magic together.