Supporting young women as leaders

 16 October 2015

How would the arts and social sector look if we set leadership as a realistic career ambition for women in their twenties, rather than as something that might just happen one day far away?

“Tessa runs outdoor dance session to help develop leadership skills for women in different contexts.
“Tessa runs outdoor dance session to help develop leadership skills for women in different contexts." Image: Natasha Bidgood

Leadership can be defined as influencing others and as having an impact in the world. This can take a myriad of forms.

A coach can pinpoint particular areas or behaviours that we need to cultivate.

In these times of sector cuts and growing self-employment, how can we support young women in stepping forwards? In finding their place as social entrepreneurs and in making a difference in the areas that matter the most to them? 

I’ve been working with a group of women in their twenties to develop leadership ambitions and to challenge the perception that leadership roles are only those we can 'apply for' after they have already been defined by an external agency.

Here are some thoughts about supporting young women into setting up their own initiatives and in taking on leadership roles early in life.

Recognising what makes a leader

It's important to make the distinction between different types of leadership. There's the set of skills and experience that are needed to run a project or organisation. But then there's how you as an individual show what you stand for - who you are and how you inspire others into action as you move through the world.

Arguably, gaining the relevant knowledge and skills could be actually considered easier than defining the specific vision of what your contributing work in the world is.

Leadership can be developed through a supportive skills audit, showing us where our strengths lie and what else we may need to learn in order to be more effective in achieving our ambitions. 

Using role models and coaches

Being presented with realistic role models of what can be achieved really helps in refining and defining ambition. 

 It seems to be not just about what we are doing, but who we are being.

Spending time with older women who are successfully doing the type of work you want can show the benefits of boldly working towards your aim (and also perhaps paint an honest picture of what it might actually take to get there).

Effective leadership also demands a level of self-awareness, so that we can be skilful in the ways in which we influence others. A coach can pinpoint particular areas or behaviours that we need to cultivate. 

Different types of coaching

  • Traditional coaching, where coaches work with goal-setting and defining the actions we need to take going forwards. 
  • Art-based coaching, which can work with a more creative approach to defining our vision and values. This can involve brainstorming about the broad direction of our trajectory, clearly knowing our ultimate aims and busting through any limiting beliefs we may hold that stop us from achieving them.
  • Embodied coaching, which may involve movement or dance, is another way that is gaining in popularity. The USA army and UK rugby team are among its advocates. 

I believe that working with the body can be an excellent shortcut to growing your leadership qualities. We can learn to move in ways that will enhance a particular quality, such as our receptivity to others, or our ability to move directly towards what matters most. 

Embodiment links to leadership in the question of how we lead effectively. Time and time again it seems to be not just about what we are doing, but who we are being. With growing bodily awareness, we can choose to cultivate how we move through life, in line with our mission.

Making supportive connections

It is crucial to create a supportive community around leaders. It can be lonely to spearhead something.

In these times of sector cuts and growing self-employment, how can we support young women in stepping forwards?

However committed to their vision leaders are, there are still moments when it's necessary to seek support from peers in our profession. In the early days of setting out on a leadership journey, it’s often a trusted friend or maybe an informal mentor. 

Very few of us have unfaltering confidence and there’s something necessary about creating a strong community around us. Peer support can serve well while we seek out some formal mentoring or an action learning set to support our growth.

A culture change

There is no one easy answer to encouraging more women to take up or create leadership roles, and it will take considerable cultural change to bring balance.

In the meantime, we can all work towards cultivating both the skillset and self-confidence needed to support the next generation of cultural leaders in stepping forwards.

Tessa Howell runs a leadership programme for young women. The programme uses art-based coaching to define vision and values; dance to cultivate embodied leadership skills; plus training in effective communication, SMART goals and more to develop creative ambition, confidence and community in women aged 20-29.