Snow White’s Red Apple Carries a New Name: Leadership

Call it synchronicity. For the last two months, three of the most important business women communities that I am attending brought up the theme of women, diversity, leadership and … burnout. Which made me think: is it really a coincidence that, while the Czech economy is growing, companies crave talent and the possibility of gender quotas from 2020 looms in the background, women are actually taking a step back to reflect on their health, well-being and overall role in today’s corporate culture?

On May 28, Boris Štepanovič, a psychologist, conducted an evening talk on the theme Keeping your peace of mind at work (and at home) for My Odyssey, one of the most brilliant and enriching business women communities in the Czech Republic.

On June 4, Michaela Dombrovská held a speech for Microsoft Opening Windows business women community on her experience with burnout, which led to her book The Rules of Positive Selfishness, published in November 2014.

Last but not least, on June 26 the HR Committee of the American Chamber of Commerce in the Czech Republic (AmCham) included a talk on diversity conducted by Kimberli Lewis, founder of Global Business Therapy in cooperation with Assessment Systems. As it seems, diversity promises to become a leading topic for the AmCham HR Committee in 2016.

As the discussion at AmCham developed, I couldn’t stop thinking of the previous talks at My Odyssey and Opening Windows. Focused only on bringing more women to the top of the corporate ladder, we are constantly looking for means to change / develop / transform women in order to get them more fit for leadership positions. But are we actually doing the right thing?

If the answer is yes, how comes so many women make it to a vice-president level, but give up just one step before becoming CEOs? How comes that, in the process of pushing more and more women towards the top, companies are bleeding talent and women speak more and more loudly about burnout?

Guilt: the hidden shadow of women performance 

There is a trap down the line for every woman willing to discover her full potential. It’s called guilt.

As women, we are raised to be good girls. First we need to clean our room and help with the household. Then we need to bring home good, if not excellent, marks.

We are raised to choose a profession where we can be good at, where we can get well paid and where, ultimately, our contribution is recognized with a promotion to the top.

Once we reach adulthood, it becomes somehow natural and expected that we happily marry and have a bunch of lovely, well-groomed children. At the same time, we are expected to dress well, look fit, be available on the phone and physically for our parents, relatives and friends and, if possible, throw out of a few nice parties every other month for our social circles.

Once we achieve all that, we can be called successful. Right?

What someone forgot to tell us about this idyllic image of successful womanhood is that it exists only in fairytales. In reality, it comes like the apple handed to Snow White by her stepmother: it’s red, good looking and it literally kills.

It doesn’t matter what and how much we do to fulfill all our roles: daughter, wife / life partner, mother, sister, employee, manager, friend, community member: there is always a lingering feeling that we’re not doing enough. And when we’re not doing enough, we don’t feel good enough.

The biggest trap that no one warned us, women, about is that, when we want it all, we will get crushed under the burden of our own expectations.

When we act in the paradigm of fulfilling all the expectations from all our roles, we are constantly overstretched. We have lower and lower energy and the quality of our life suffers. Slowly we slip into burnout and, if we don’t recognize it in time, into depression. If we still try to compensate our low level of energy with even more pressure to be better, we slip into a full-fledged crisis. And, given our firm commitment to feel good about ourselves only when we fulfill all our life roles perfectly, crisis seems to be the only way for real change to occur.

Unfortunately, we often must hit the bottom before we can take off in a different, more authentic, healthier self.

My learning after five years of entrepreneurship that stretched my boundaries as well is: embrace your guilt. It may have a powerful message for you. In fact, it may have a few messages:

  • Intensive guilt in relation to a specific role may show you what is really important for you.
  • Less intensive guilt towards other roles may show you what is not truly yours, the roles that you took over, like a good girl, from the expectations of your family and teachers. They came like a basket of red, poisonous apples that are now overstretching your boundaries and clouding what is really important for you.

Guilt may, thus, help you to return the basket there where it belongs, to your past, and in the empty space created, to allow room for something new, something that is really yours.

It may not be perfection as seen by someone else: your parents, your husband or your company. But it is perfection to you.

CEOs: When is enough enough? 

Back to the issue of women leadership touched at the beginning of this post, I think time has come to look at things differently.

We are currently looking for tools – and training, trust me – to transform women in order to fit the current CEO positions. How about actually starting to look at the CEO positions and ask ourselves: how should current CEO positions change in order to embrace more of the Feminine: nurturing, genuine care and consideration for resources, cyclical regeneration?

For example, can you imagine a company CEO coming in front of the board of investors and saying: “One percent growth this year is enough. Our people and resources need to rest and regenerate.” Or: “Our future comes not from eliminating competition, but from cooperating with our competitors?

Let me be even more provocative: Can you imagine the head of the European Union, a woman, saying: “We cannot win the war on terrorism and illegal migration. What we need to do is stop wasting (for example money on agricultural policies, to grow crops that are later left to rot on the ground only because they don’t meet the EU shape standards). How about sending that food to those in need in Africa and the Middle East?

Can you imagine our world shaped by the vision and genuine, authentic impulses of women?

For the moment, me neither. Which is why I strongly believe that, before we put even more pressure on women to take the lead in companies, we need to answer the question: how does a genuinely feminine CEO role looks like? What does it need to have, what does it need to give up and how does it need to transform in order to welcome more of the Feminine?

Because, unless we do so, we might invite a different side of the Feminine to the top. It’s called Kali: the one who does not hesitate to raise the sword to blow, break and destroy in order to trigger change.

In order to allow renewal, Kali brings death first. And I fear that, unless we learn to accept that genuine transformation at the CEO position level is needed, more and more women will be confronted with guilt, pressure and burnout. Companies will thus only continue to bleed what they pretend to be fighting for: vision, genuine talent, feminine leadership.

And I wonder: is this really necessary?

Let's Talk

The best way to gain, retain, and restore your critical distance as a woman CEO is to have a faithful guide, thought partner, and inspiring challenger by your side. This is what I am for women CEOs. If you are facing major developments in your business or in your career this year, we should talk. Please book or have your assistant book a no-strings-attached free 30-minute CEO exploration call with me; we will get to know each other and I will be thrilled to spot how I could be of your service in 2024 and beyond.
Cristina Muntean
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Let's Talk

The best way to gain, retain, and restore your critical distance as a woman CEO is to have a faithful guide, thought partner, and inspiring challenger by your side. This is what I am for women CEOs. If you are facing major developments in your business or in your career this year, we should talk. Please book or have your assistant book a no-strings-attached free 30-minute CEO exploration call with me; we will get to know each other and I will be thrilled to spot how I could be of your service in 2024 and beyond.