On female leadership, or why your theme song should be Ludacris’ Move Bitch

Let me start with a confession.

I haven’t spent much time thinking about leadership. I’m in my mid-30s, and work for a private foundation doing communications. But for nine years before this, I worked in journalism, where the term leadership is almost a dirty word. Leadership implies you’re the man. And journalism is all, damn the man! (Save the Empire!)

During my newspaper days, I had lots of passionate conversations about the craft and the industry with my ink-stained colleagues. But I can’t remember one conversation about leadership. (Except a few about ways we perceived various leaders of being insipid, incompetent or downright corrupt.) It’s not that journalists can’t be leaders; they can, and some are. Leaders are needed in any setting. But mostly, we were concerned with other things — beating the competition, exposing wrongdoing, making deadlines, crafting the tightest lead, and ordering another round of beers.

While I miss my press-card carrying days in some ways, there have been welcome surprises in life outside of journalism. Feeling free to try on entirely new roles is one. To revive pieces of myself that had gone dormant. I can get involved in the community and take on issues in different ways. I can admit to myself that I want to lead.

Last week, I feel privileged to have been invited to two breakfasts for leaders in Detroit who happen to be women. As one male colleague called it (in that way of cheekily diminishing things that they perceive as threatening), it was a chick-fest. And sometimes you need a chick-fest. I met so many women who are thoughtfully crafting themselves to lead, and I walked away inspired, with pages of notes filled with practical advice for building those skills.

Most of the furious note-taking came Friday when two national leaders spoke at the Skillman Foundation, where I work. Lisa Nutter is president of Philadelphia Academies Inc., a nonprofit doing youth development work in Philadelphia. She also happens to be the first lady for the city — her husband is Mayor Mike Nutter. Sherece West-Scantlebury is president of Winthrop Rockerfeller Foundation, which works to improve the lives of low-income people in Arkansas. The two are longtime friends of Tonya Allen, one of the most dynamic female leaders I know — and our Foundation’s president & CEO. (If only we all could have such kick-ass, inspiring female leaders in our personal circles, right ladies?)

Tonya interviewed her two friends as 20 or so of us listened in on what these powerful women have learned about leading. There were so many takeaways — including when Nutter said, if she had a theme song, she’d pick I’m Every Woman, except on the days when it needs to be Ludacris’ Move Bitch (Get Out the Way).

The people who stand in the way of our leadership can be the competition, coworkers, or people on the other side of the issue. But I think sometimes the bitch — ahem, woman — who needs to get out the way is ourselves.

Through the discussion, it became clear that these three women did not ascend to positions of power and become the type of leaders they are today without plenty of self-reflection, work, and intention. It doesn’t just happen. There’s a necessary struggle. Not to be heard or to break down barriers or to change cultures — although those struggles be come along, too. It’s about the inner struggle to really know yourself, be true to yourself, and to let things go of the things that get in the way of your progress, including your own ego and fears.

West-Scantlebury said, “You have to bring your whole self to your role as a leader. You can’t compartmentalize.’

You have to fully commit. And that’s hard. Because it means confronting the things that scare us, the pieces of ourselves that need work or the places we carry our doubt. You have to “examine the struggle,” West-Scantlebury said, to get through it and to find the truth about who you are and what you stand for.

“It’s critical as a leader to know yourself.” West-Scantlebury said. “You can be who you are and be open to learn, open to change, and open to adapt. But you have to be settled in who you are.”

One way she suggested doing that is something you’ve probably heard before but maybe haven’t done — write out your mission statement. Put it down in black and white. Then put all your skills, talent and energy into being true to that.

In doing so, it should become more obvious what you can cast aside, where you will draw the line on things. What you’ll endure to make things happen and what you won’t negotiate on.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking it is about balance, though. It’s more about boundaries.

Skillman Foundation President & CEO Tonya Allen, Winthrop Rockeeller Foundation President & CEO Sharece West-Scantlebury, and Philadelphia Academies Inc. President Lisa Nutter.

There’s no such thing as balance,” Nutter said. “It’s a constant pivot-shift. Pivot-shift. I don’t balance anything. I just constantly change priorities. Right now, I could be 100% focused on my work, and in 10 minutes, I could be 100% focused on being a mom. I see it as we are not giving anything up, but we are putting things in the right place. That’s a skill.”

Nutter shared a funny story about a school calling her during a busy work day when her child was sick. She called her husband to go pick her up, because at that moment, she knew she needed to be 100% attuned to work. And that’s OK.

“He’s the Mayor…. So what?” Nutter said. “He’s still a parent.”

She wasn’t afraid to ask him for what she wanted. And that’s another skill that leaders should embrace. Especially female leaders. Don’t apologize for wanting what you want — men certainly won’t.

“Men have no problem calling you up and asking for what they want,” West-Scantlebury said. “For you to hire someone. For you to fund something. So, I do the same thing.

“If you’re afraid to ask someone for money, you have to get over it, because there are 25 other people out there who aren’t afraid. Ask for what you need.”

Her examples included things like asking for time off to care for family, or to leave an hour early to pick up a sick child. But she said, “Your stuff has to be boss. Your stuff can’t be raggedy. You have to get it tight.”

“Your stuff has to be boss. Your stuff can’t be raggedy. You have to get it tight.”

That extends to your whole self. Nutter spoke about learning to wield her words and build discipline in how she presents herself. Instead of always needing to show people exactly who she is and what she thinks — as she confessed she used to do earlier in her career — she said she’s learned to be measured.

For a tool in meetings, Lisa thinks about the way you crack the corner of Tupperware to let a bit of air out. She thinks carefully in each moment about how much she wants to “air out.”

I think, “How much do I have to let out to get you to hear me?” Nutter said. “Can I just lift the corner, or do I need to take the entire lid off?”

West-Scantlebury spoke about being ego-less and comfortable in knowing that she need not always be in the room for her presence to be felt. “I’m still the president — I’m influencing what happens even if I’m not there.” For her, it is simply about doing what needs to be done to make the things happen that she believes in.

“My goal is not to pound you on something,” she said. “:My goal is to be effective. That’s it. You have to take the ego out of it.”

And that only comes after you get out of your own way.

Writer. Michigander. Mother. Sober.

Writer. Michigander. Mother. Sober.