I’ve been working on some exercises for my coaching tool box and thought this one might be a useful one to share for anyone who might be feeling overwhelmed, afraid, tired or just in need of a boost right now.
It’s based around this analogy of a bucket. In that we all have this invisible bucket of enthusiasm, joy and energy.
We are at our best when our buckets are overflowing – we feel better, we are able to recover from difficulties easier and we are able to give more to others. We are at our worst when our buckets are empty. You can’t give to others from an empty bucket either.
Our buckets can get drained by other people, what is going on around us, and how we respond to these things. Examples could include; worrying, negative feedback, feeling overwhelmed, or lack of sleep.
But our buckets can be filled by activities that bring us joy, a sense of calm, or give us energy. Examples could include; exercise; time in nature, reading a book, or eating a nice meal.
Different people will have different things that drain or fill their buckets.
The idea is that you identify the things that fill your bucket, and prioritise doing more of those things. Even if it’s one small thing in a limited slither of time.
In focusing on filling your bucket, you’re better able to respond mindfully to those things that have the potential to drain you and giving yourself more energy and enthusiasm overall.
This simple exercise has been designed to identify and action those things that fill your bucket. Grab some note pad and paper:
How full if your bucket today? Give yourself a score out of 10. with 10 being really full and 0 being empty. This is your starting point for filling up your bucket.
What are the things that are draining your bucket? Make a list. Acknowledging them can lessen their hold on you, but also provide a start point for moving forward.
What are things that you know add to your bucket? ie. activities that you know bring you joy, a sense of calm, or give you energy. Make a list.
How could you start doing more of those bucket filling activities? Even if it’s starting with one very small thing. Do that thing consistently for a week and then score your bucket again.
My name is Amanda Sterling, I am a Doctoral student in the Department of Management and International Business, at the University of Auckland. I am conducting research exploring the embodiment of mothers within leadership. According to industry metrics (e.g. the Champions for Change Diversity Report 2019, and New Zealand Workplace Diversity Survey 2019) women are still significantly underrepresented in senior leadership roles in New Zealand. Initiatives to address this position it as a ‘choice’ for mothers to take on less responsible duties, lower-status part-time or flexible work options, or drop out of the paid workforce altogether when they become mothers. However, critics of this approach challenge us to question our ‘natural’ assumptions surrounding the ‘appropriate’ places for mothers’ bodies and what we ‘see’ as leadership.
I am conducting focus groups with New Zealand based mothers who have children younger than five years old and who are leaders (or aspirational leaders), to explore the power and identity dynamics surrounding leadership and embodiment, and uncover opportunities for women entering and sustaining senior leadership positions.
These focus group sessions are two hours long and have also been designed as a leadership development activity. It is expected that you will:
Build a greater awareness of yourself as a mother and leader;
Build a greater awareness of how you interact with dominant norms and assumptions surrounding motherhood and leadership, and how you resist and rewrite these; and
Participate in a supportive environment with women going through similar experiences of motherhood and leadership.
My aim with this research is to make a theoretical contribution to the power and identity dynamics surrounding leadership and embodiment, and a practical contribution to closing the leadership gender gap. Your participation in this research is a show of solidarity with all women as leaders.
Many thanks in advance and I look forward to hearing from you.
* Please note, focus group sessions will be organised around you and, in light of the current situation with Covid-19, we are exploring alternative options, which could include doing them online or delaying.
Approved by the University of Auckland Human Participants Ethics Committee on 19th March 2020 for three years. Reference Number 024314
How do you want to make a meaningful contribution in this world?
One of the most important jobs we have is raising our babies into happy, healthy and successful adults. But the truth is that we’re not always recognised, or valued, for our contributions in this. It often feels like the gravity motherhood, the blood, sweat and tears, get overlooked. Within paid work, if we work long hours, keep that customer happy, and deliver results, we’re applauded, congratulated and acknowledged financially. But if we’re up multiple times a night for an upset child; on the move from when they wake up to when they finally go to sleep; wiping bums and snot; cooking nutritious meals (and watching them throw it on the floor); doing this and more day in and day out, it more often than not goes unacknowledged.
If your world pre-babies revolved around having a career, it can be hard to find meaning in this unnoticed world of motherhood. But trying to do both, be a mother and work outside the home in order to fill a gap in who we want to be, or who we think we should be, can be fraught with challenges.
Which of these do you struggle to avoid?
Unconscious judgements about where you should, or shouldn’t be – at home or at work – and how you should or shouldn’t behave – caring and compassionate, and not cold.
A work environment that makes it hard for you to ‘juggle’ child care and domestic home, at the same time as fulfil expectations of success at work.
Pressures you put on yourself to be this great mother AND prove that you’re still as capable and committed as your colleagues, as the person you were before babies.
Gendered expectations about your role in your household; cooking, cleaning, shopping, as well as organising the swimming lessons, the birthday presents…. The mental load list goes on and on.
Uncertainty about who you are now. Are you a mother? A worker? A leader? Do none of these roles fit you perfectly? Do you feel like you should pick just one? If you pick just one, can you feel like you do it well enough? What is enough?
Being a mother is one of the most challenging and rewarding roles we have as women. For me, it’s the one that gives me the most meaning and significance, but at the same time as the most frustration and grief. Not just because of constant negotiation with a toddler hell bent on eating cat food. But because of the inequality that seems to go hand in hand in being a mother. A portion of our lives as mothers gets denied, silenced, or excluded. We still have to assimilate to the status quo culture, or ideals around leadership, in order to fit in, or be respected, valued, acknowledged. It’s a significant reason why women exit the workforce and don’t make it into leadership positions.
This is not right, or fair, or equal. Our children are not invisible to us. The part of us that makes us mothers should not be invisible. What is at stake here is our inclusion based on our needs, preferences, and skills. Not body count… inclusion.
Today is International Women’s Day. The theme this year calls for us to “challenge stereotypes, fight bias, and broaden perceptions” (International Women’s Day 2020). In acknowledgement of this day, I’d like to propose something to you. Let’s own who we are as mothers, and step into our potential as leaders. Let’s challenge stereotypes surrounding what gets rewarded and recognised. Let’s unsettle what it looks like to make a contribution to this world. Let’s take back our worth as parents nurturing the next generation. Let’s own who we are as mothers, partners, friends, sisters, workers, leaders, lovers, fighters… women. All of it.
In a practical sense, what can you do right now? As a starting point, you can pause and reflect on three questions:
What could you let go of that doesn’t serve you?
What do you already do that is beautiful and meaningful?
How could you acknowledge and celebrate that more?
If you feel comfortable doing so, please share your thoughts surrounding these questions by commenting on this post. Or simply write your answers down somewhere and use them as guideposts.
Women are still significantly underrepresented in senior leadership roles in New Zealand. A recent Champions for Change diversity report showed women making up approximately one-third of leaders from the executive level upwards, and according to Diversity Works representation at these levels is going backwards. This is problematic. Somewhere along the lines, opportunities for women to participate are lacking. But why should you care? Firstly, should it not be an ethical and moral imperative that everybody in New Zealand has equal opportunities for education and employment? Secondly, we need more women at senior leadership levels. Listening to Vic Crone from Callaghan Innovation speak at a PhD event last week, we’re facing a period of unprecedented and intense change and need greater innovation and adaptability in our businesses. This will only come from a mindset shift within our senior leaders. A shift that encompasses diversity of thought and an exploration of different ways of working.
So why are women not making it into these senior roles? There is compelling research to suggest that this could have something to do with women taking on less responsible duties, lower-status part-time or flexible work options, or dropping out of the paid workforce altogether when they become mothers. Yet, these kinds of decisions are often rationalised as a ‘choice’ individual mothers make to prioritise care-giving responsibilities over paid work. She hasn’t ‘leaned-in’, she’s ‘leaned-out’, and that’s her business. It’s a mindset that both mothers and organisations are complicit in maintaining. But it ignores the power plays of norms and assumptions surrounding appropriate roles for mothers, and dismisses the systemic issues in how work gets organised and rewarded. Up until I became a mother I believed I had equal opportunities and it was up to me to make the most of them. But upon returning to work after maternity leave, I was passed over for a leadership position in my team, and kept out of the loop on interesting projects that might require travel. None of these things were maliciously intended. In fact, easily wrapped up in ‘considerate’ assumptions being made about my new life priorities. But this, coupled with a felt expectation to work longer than my part-time hours in order to be recognised, were death knells to my motivation to continue in paid employment. Now, after spending the past 9 months immersed in literature, I’m very aware that my story is a cliche version of why women exit the workforce after becoming mothers – lack of opportunity to progress, feeling undervalued, a struggle with ‘balance’. The ‘lean in’ manifesto is failing working mothers because it individualises our experiences while excusing systemic discrimination.
So I’m choosing now to research motherhood alongside leadership. Because if we can ‘see’ mothers as leaders, could we have greater power to address gender inequality at those senior levels? This is about role models, yes. But it’s also about deconstructing what we understand as motherhood, and what we understand as leadership. I see mothers as the ultimate embodiment of humanity – in that we have given our bodies to conceive, grow, birth, sustain, nurture, and comfort new life. But dominant archetypes of leadership are far removed from this. In fact, some might say the opposite, an aspirational ideal that revolves around clean, proper, contained, authentically follower centric and ‘god-like’ in their omnipotent manifestations. I’m proposing playing with both concepts side by side to see what gets thrown up. In this contrast, could something new be birthed? My research question, at this stage, revolves around how do mothers’ embody leadership?
Mothers bodies, and this contrast between two opposing ideals, are a site of inspiration for my research and, in that sense, I’m honing in on some very specific areas. But I’m doing so while looking around me. At the dad sidelined into the work no-one else wants to do because he insists on leaving work at 5pm to spend time with his kids before they go to bed. At the dad feeling trapped in long hours and missing out on seeing his children grow up because he’s now the sole breadwinner. At the mums struggling to be the parents they feel they need to be and the worker expected of them, reconciling this struggle with antidepressants, feeling unable to speak up at work or be transparent about where they’re falling for fear of being perceived as unenthusiastic about work and further sidelined into work they can ‘handle’. These are somewhat simplified, but very real examples, indicative of larger, more systemic challenges, surrounding how work gets organised, what gets rewarded and recognised, how people are able to bring their full selves to work, and larger issues concerning how we measure the success of our organisations. The dominant constructions surrounding motherhood and leadership, where I’m focusing my attention, are only one part of the bigger picture.
It’s a space where very little research already exists. and I’m left wondering why that is? What I know is that motherhood can be an individualising and isolating experience that mothers, particularly those who have focused on their career, struggle with. Is it a touchy subject? Or is the emphasis placed more strongly on these individual mothers to ‘sort their shit out’? So everyone else shouldn’t concern themselves with it? In many cases, initiatives to address the transition of mothers back to work puts the accountability on those mothers to make it work or leave. Does shifting the focus to the organisational systems and structures make the existing power holders too uncomfortable? Or does it make you uncomfortable about your complicit role in it? Because what struck me when I began reading about this topic, is that we think we’ve achieved gender equality. It’s a particularly discomforting belief to see in young women, pre-children, playing the game by the rules and believing it to be fair. But what Anne-Marie Slaughter says in her TED talk really resonated with me, that the equality of women shouldn’t be judged on the standards of men. We don’t need more women acting like men in senior leadership positions. We need greater diversity of thinking and inclusivity around different ways of being in the world. I hold to the view that women have a slightly different experience of life and parenthood, in that our bodies are very much part of the process, with different practicalities, norms and assumptions surrounding them. But are we too scared to touch bodies?
So where to from here? I’m currently working on my research proposal in preparation for my provisional year review, and ethics applications, early next year. This means further shaping, and refining of my research focus, and a lot more reading of existing literature. My aim is to start advertising for research participants in March. At this point, I’m proposing to run focus groups with mothers who are also leaders, or aspirational leaders. I’m very mindful of my research making some sort of difference, in imbuing mothers with their own agency to question and resist normalised structures that wield power over them, and organisations to question their ways of constructing leadership and support mothers on this pathway.
I asked on a LinkedIn post recently ‘How would you describe leadership?’ The words I got in response included; enabling, inspiring, self-awareness, humility, authenticity, transparency, resilience, supporting, helping, recognising, empowering, facilitating, influencing, understanding, and nurturing (Sterling, 2019). These words imply a human-centered interest in one’s followers. But as I traverse the world of practitioner discourse and academic research into leadership, I’m beginning to feel inclined towards framing leadership as a disembodied experience. One further disconnected from the human experience than encapsulating it. There are several different ways I see this happening and I’d like to invite you to question your own norms and assumptions as I explore these, as well as propose some areas that offer potential to re-imagine leadership more humanely.
This all starts with how we understand leadership and how we play to the power of that. There are many different interpretations and definitions. Asking that question I posed at the start of this post – ‘How would you describe leadership?’ – generated a broad range of answers. Leadership is less a thing that can be objectively described, like ‘water’ is ‘water’, but a subjective construct that is open to many different interpretations and enactments. We drift to what’s popular, what’s within our sphere of understanding, what feels a comfortable level of discomfort for us. But it’s as if the very complexity and fluidity of leadership leaves it more open to established and entrenched norms and assumptions dictating how we understand it. What we know rushes in to fill the gap of what we don’t.
So what are the norms and assumptions at the foundation of leadership? The big one is gender, and the stereotypes we are ‘captive’ to and complicit in. From an early age we perform the gender roles assigned to our bodies by identifying with a learned ideology, ‘girl’ or ‘boy’, and constantly creating ourselves in that image (see West & Zimmerman, 1987). We judge, and are judged by the labels and meanings attached to these bodies. Our own understandings, beginning with our first experiences, and developed over time. Our first encounter with leadership is via our parents; generally speaking the authoritarian father and the caring and nurturing mother (Sinclair, 2004). These are powerful constructs of self, and others that hold sway over us. Our ways of ‘being’ in this world are closely aligned with our need to be connected to other humans, to be seen, to belong. Our status as humans is called into question if we challenge norms. So, as Butler (2004) puts it, this means complying no matter how restrictive, debilitating or unrealistic these norms seem to be.
It’s in this humanness, our need to define our world by what is normal, that we subvert what makes us human; our bodies. We don’t ‘see’ humans anymore. We see a constructed ideology. One associated with leadership, and one associated with the appropriate genders of our leaders. These are overlapping constructs and have implications for the inclusion, or exclusion, of particular traits or behaviours. Critiques of the symbolism, undertone and focus of leadership revolves around a masculine narrative (see Sinclair, 2005; Ford & Harding, 2011; Ford & Harding, 2007; Nicholson & Carroll, 2013; and these are just what I’ve read so far!). When we ‘see’ leadership it’s generally a white man, poised in his power suit, or charismatically approachable with his open buttons and blazer. Ironically, men in leadership don’t get judged on their bodies but women do. Yet, we don’t ‘see’ leaders when women demonstrate behaviours that could be considered leadership if only we’d broaden our spectrum (Nixon & Sinclair, 2017). Where women are positioned as leaders, their contributions are undervalued even if they are creating economic value (Abdullah et al, 2016). Or they are more susceptible to harsh stereotyping or strict scrutiny that may affect firm performance metrics (Hoobler, et al, 2018). We have discomfort towards women with power (Nixon & Sinclair, 2017). Simply put a woman isn’t fitting into our normative understanding of her gender role, and what we imagine as leadership. She is penalised; not for what she does, but for what we believe.
So how would you describe a leader? Referring back to those words I used at the beginning; they are perfect, and perfectly aspirational. This beautiful manifestation of a leader knows themselves well enough to self-regulate and be true to the core to their values, preferences and emotions; they are able to connect with people, win acceptance, and know what to reveal to whom. They are inherently good, virtuous, with the utmost standards of moral leadership (Ford & Harding, 2011). We all want to be lead by a person like this. We may even want to be that person. This ideal has such a powerful hold on our consciousness. It’s certainly well intentioned. It plays to our desire to create a better world. But it’s the infallible allure of this, untouchability in its perfection, transcendence above the mere mundane ‘managers’ and ‘workers’, that positions leaders as above us mere mortals with our fallibilities and dark sides. It underscores the prevailing heroic, grandiose, ‘god-like’ archetype of leadership. And who do you picture when you read of gods? Leadership is simultaneously disembodied, above corporeal concerns, and masculine.
What are the options? Ignore gender in the embodiment of leadership? We’re supposedly on a level playing field after all. Gender equality and all that. But Kelan’s (2010) study of ICT workers is a nice illustration of the perils of ignoring gender, to the continual reinforcement of the dominant bodied norms. These workers insisted that the workplace was gender neutral. Yet this quote and summary illustrates the subtext: “one should not bring to the foreground that one is a woman” (Kelan, 2010; p. 184) and then there is no discrimination. In leaving bodies at the door, we robe ourselves in a masculine worker ideal disguised as gender equality. But on the flip-side, where femininity is addressed (in the neo-liberal / faux feminist agenda, see McRobbie, 2009) it acts as a safety net of feminine values as we negotiate power with men. Both a stepping forth into the workplace and an apology for doing so; ‘it’s ok, I’m just a girl’. Ignoring femaleness in favour of a dominant work ideology emphasises that being a professional is being a man. Yet, expressing feminine embodiment within a masculine work culture could do more to subvert bodies than triumph them. Gender equality is not sameness, a level playing field or an assimilation, but a fearless expression of human embodiment within a context where this is welcomed.
The presence of bodies, or lack thereof, remains an issue in the workplace. Women are still not making it into senior leadership positions, in fact the number in New Zealand is going backwards (Diversity Works, 2019). The bodies are simply not there. I am not proposing here that women necessarily have a better, or even different, way of leading (I might explore that in another post). But I invite you to question whether, in our quest for the ultimate, human, leader, we’ve made leadership an unattainable, disembodied concept? One that places women’s bodies as ‘other’ to the norm. Sinclair and Nixon (2017) suggest that being more anchored in our own bodies could consciously change our mindset towards ourselves and others influencing a leader’s capacity for openness and learning. And that bodies outside the norms, give greater opportunities to challenge them. Could registering feelings, including our dark sides, tensions and challenges; as well as embracing our messy, fleshy, corporealness, give us greater connection to our humanity and more ‘real’ forms of leadership? In my own research, I’m looking to explore whether embracing the embodiment, enactment and experience of being a mother could move leadership into a new conversation. One where real human bodies matter because they’re allowed to show up as such, not just as who we imagine them to be, or filtered by what we’re comfortable with.
So, if I can leave you with one more question; how would you describe the kind of leadership that makes you uncomfortable?
Abdullah, S. N., Ismail, K. N. I. K., & Nachum, L. (2016). Does having women on boards create value? The impact of societal perceptions and corporate governance in emerging markets. Strategic Management Journal, 37(3), 466–476. https://doi.org/10.1002/smj.2352