Leading From A Cup That Runs Over

In our quest to confront gender inequality, the modern-day successful woman has been painted as an indomitable superhero, able to break through glass ceilings and conquer just about any challenge. Yet the toll this takes on women’s mental health and wellbeing is acute. In honour of International Women’s Day, Hope Mutua, Deputy Chief of Staff in The Room, reflects on the need for women to rest, to replenish and to prioritise self-care.

2020 was without a doubt a taxing year that forced many to reimagine what it means to succeed and thrive as a leader. Beyond the economic pressures brought about by the pandemic, the challenge to mental health was acutely felt by many around the world. As noted in a study recently conducted by CARE, women in particular were discovered to be three times more likely than men to report suffering from significant mental health challenges (27% compared to 10%). To put it mildly, beyond the usual pressures, 2020 was one heck of a year for women.

As I reflected on this reality and also my own journey to becoming a more empowered woman or as the millennials would say, a ‘boss woman’, one thought that continuously ran through my mind was about the unrealistic pressure that society has placed on women to rise, to lead and to succeed. In our quest to ruthlessly confront gender inequality, we painted the modern-day successful woman as indomitable, glass-ceiling breaking and able to pull through just about every situation. And while women are certainly these things — and so much more — we’ve ultimately been boxed into a place where success is always expected and the space to fail, to pause and to just be human is highly discouraged.

We need to allow ourselves to change our minds, to explore what ignites us and to walk away from what burdens us.

It’s with this understanding that I started thinking about what it means to be a holistically empowered woman who leads from a cup that runs over. Three key things stood out to me:

Make space to be human

As a young female professional, I’ve often felt the pressure to fill in the gaps, step up and prove my worth. Shadowed by the portrayals of women I admire for their success, I have often let my determination lead me away from letting myself be human. What does this really mean?

Inspiring author Toni Morrison once said, “You are your own stories and therefore free to imagine and experience what it means to be human.” I see being human as allowing yourself to experience and show others the plethora of emotions and moments that define you. We are coloured with a buffet of both strengths and weaknesses that enable us to succeed and even fail. In light of this, we cannot as women and leaders expect to always have it figured out. We need to allow ourselves to change our minds, to explore what ignites us and to walk away from what burdens us. This is not to disregard the sacrifices that we often make, but it’s to remind ourselves that it is only when we do things that are truly meaningful to us and allow us to be human that we are able to have a deep, long-lasting impact on others.

Make space to check out

I was recently inspired by this article written by communications specialist Jim Olson on how at the age of 50, he decided to take a gap year that would allow him to ‘stop fuelling his ambition and start refuelling his soul.’ As we navigate the path towards success and self-actualization, it’s often easy to be fixated on a particular destination and forget to experience the journey and more importantly, enjoy times of rest. What Jim so beautifully highlights is that for you to discover what it means to be the person the world needs you to be and not what it expects, you need to pause, reflect and re-strategize.

As women, this is easier said than done with all the hats we wear as leaders, colleagues, mothers, partners, sisters, friends, daughters — and the ‘double shifts’ we endure. Yet, at one point, you have to make the decision to be intentional about needing rest and finding time to refresh and re-energize yourself. Decide to prioritize self-care as the ingredient that fuels your drive and unleashes your full potential.

Don’t be afraid to lean into others

The paradoxical nature of leadership means that you’ll pour a lot of time and energy into others, but the seat at the top is often lonely and can leave you running on empty. For women, this is further exacerbated by the reality that many companies and organisations are yet to make room for them. In fact, a recent study conducted by Catalyst found that in 2020, the proportion of women in senior management roles stood at 29%.

With realities such as this, it only augments the message further that we as women need to learn how to lean into each other as much as possible. From the corporate office to the social scene, we can build healthy relationships and spaces with other women that empower us, support us and guide us. There is no better way to honour the women whose shoulders we stand on today than to take the time to learn from their successes and their struggles and to open the door for others just as these women have done for us. We do not need to make the mistakes that women before us have made and even more importantly, we shouldn’t let those who come after us encounter the same struggles we have faced.

As we rise to become better leaders, let us take the initiative to walk with other women through mentoring them, supporting them and speaking up for them when they cannot. But remember, let us learn how to do this from a place where our cup is overflowing because we have invested in our own growth first.

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