Pathways to leadership can be tortuous. A man who endured childhood abuse and depression, with a healthy skepticism for Christianity, became Reverend Martin Luther King. As a child living in Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai, was banned from attending school because of her gender. By the age of seventeen, she became the voice of the women’s educational rights movement. Many of the world’s greatest leaders share a story of triumph over adversity, which makes them catalysts for change. But how is a leader created?My path to leadership began because of the strong woman by whom I was raised. My grandfather gave my grandmother very little money to raise the children. Because of this she secretly had a part-time job at Macy’s. I grew up hearing this story. My mother always ended the story by saying, “I will never ask a man for money.” She never did. She was extremely successful and the primary earner for her household. She never asked anyone for anything. She was a giver – that is her legacy.
I began leading as a team captain in high school sports. Then, during my undergraduate education, I helped start a medical mission organization. As president I organized a mission of sixty volunteers to Honduras. This was my first true taste of leadership.
During medical school I was interviewed for the director position of our community medical clinic. They had noted my prior leadership experience, and I was honored by the interview. But, I didn’t step up. I was terrified by the commitment. I was worried that someone else might be better suited than me. I told them that I was the wrong choice. This was not the first time I had given-up an opportunity to lead.
Leadership is a sacrifice and a commitment, but we have a moral obligation to represent those like us. While 50% of the world is female, only 5% of those who hold CEO titles at Fortune 500 companies are female, only 26% of college presidents are female and there has only been one female NFL coach.1,2 There are still leadership positions women are effectively barred from holding. Women offer a different perspective in leadership, which can be used to fix such issues as the wage gap, workplace policies and lack of diversity. We need to develop the confidence to become a voice for others.
When I was chosen by my classmates to speak at my medical school graduation, I was anything but confident. The other speaker was the Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, so it was hard to imagine that my words might be important. But what I had to say was important, because I was representing my classmates. I was their voice. They listened, they laughed and I received a standing ovation. Getting used to the sound of my own voice and having the confidence to speak for those I represent has been a daunting obstacle.
I still have trouble listening to my own voice. This seems to be primarily a problem among women. Multiple studies have shown women often underestimate their abilities, while men tend to overestimate theirs. This has been labeled the confidence gap.3 Part of this may come from sensitivity to feedback, but emotional intelligence also allows women to align their self-perceptions with the perceptions of others.4 Women need to build the confidence to see themselves as leaders. Sometimes it takes another person to help you find the courage to value your voice. That person is a mentor.
My mother was my first mentor, but mentors are not always who you expect they should be. The most natural mentor for me would be a woman 20-30 years older than me and successful in my career path. But mentors come in all sorts of packages. Most of my mentors have not been women, and my most recent mentor is actually a woman younger than me! Mentorship is about finding a person you respect, who believes in you. A very important part of mentorship is to also become a mentor yourself. One of the most important parts of leadership is helping others to lead.
Leadership opportunities come in waves, but the opportunities don’t make a leader. A leader is made by the combination of hard work, courage and mentorship. My most recent leadership role as president of the AAEM Resident Student Association was a perfect storm of these three things.
For women there is more adversity in the path to leadership, which is why finding confidence and listening to your own voice is so important. You must value your ability to lead and represent those like you. When policies are made we need women at the table representing our interests. In a place of leadership where no one else looks, sounds or thinks like you, you may be the leader we’ve all been waiting for.
- “Women CEOs of the S&P 500.” Catalyst. N.p., 14 June 2017. Web 06 June 2017
- Lapovsky, Lucie. “Why So Few Women College Presidents?” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 14 April 2014. Web. 06 June 2017.
- Kay, Katty and Claire Shipman. “The Confidence Gap.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 26 August 2015. Web 06 June 2017.
- Srivastava, Kalpana. “Emotional Intelligence and Organizational Effectiveness.” Industrial Psychiatry Journal. Medknow Publications & Media Pvt Ltd, 2013. Web. 06 June 2017.