How can you lead at work when your power has been taken away?

There is an inbuilt problem with all forms of leadership training. It doesn’t matter which school, which philosophy, which era you’re dealing with, if you’re working with women and if 1 in 4 of those women have a history of sexual abuse (which, according to national statistics they do), then there is a problem with your theoretical approach if it doesn’t take into consideration the powerlessness associated with sexual trauma, women’s attempts to grow through this and the effects that this has on work performance, including the ability to take up the mantle of leadership at work.

Leadership training encompasses a variety of approaches, and often starts early with girls and boys encouraged to adopt representative and leadership roles at school through a number of avenues, including student representative councils, captaincy and heads of sporting teams and the school. The education environment mirrors the later workforce through the promotion and early adoption of leadership philosophies by sending children to mega events at stadiums to hear about leadership from iconic practitioners and embodiments of excellence in leadership from earlier generations. Youth leadership is also fostered through a number of civic, religious, sporting and state organisations with a similar bent on encouraging separation from the pack and building future leaders.

Within the workforce leadership training is endemic. Workplace trainers, specialised consultants, universities and the public sector all offer forms of leadership training and encourage staff to undertake sometimes protracted courses which can last over a period of months as workers fresh from earnest training sessions are missioned to return to their workplaces to put in place some of their freshly honed leadership skills newly learned in order to reflect on the outcome of this in future leadership training sessions.

But who is all this aimed at? To the middle managers? To the upcoming trainees? To those with the sparkle of promise? Are they men? Or women? What happens if you don’t cut it in this regard at work, will you be overlooked and not have your name put down on the list for leadership training? And who determines whether you’re leadership material or not? And lastly, what about the self-promoters that just put themselves down for training sessions to craft and fine tune their leadership potential, because well, they’re always putting their names down for things…

Part of the trouble with this paradigm is the question of whether leaders are born or made. Clearly the industry promoting education, courses and training works from the premise that leaders are made and not born. And therein lies the problem: lots of women are unaccustomed to leadership roles, often not through choice but through circumstances, adverse life experiences and plain old sexism. And that’s before we get to the problem of histories of sexual assault. If you’ve suffered from sexual assault your power is taken away from you. You lose the ability to trust those around you and it’s very hard to put into place and embody the very values that leadership often requires.

Not everyone can wear their heart on their sleeves easily in this way, by professing their status, to mark themselves as imperfect, yet management and leadership manuals will tell you that in an effort to be an authentic and respected leader, you need to do just this. I’m not referring here to histories of abuse, but these too can be included here and are by some women.  You must offer up an imperfection because human nature is such that people will just make stuff up about you and so the theory goes, you might as well give them something because it’s better (and more manageable) than anything that they can make up.

So these days as workers we wear our soiled identities at work with pride. This is the school of authenticity, and authenticity in leadership is highly prized. This is an endearing state in which leaders are modelled on the greatest leaders known to humanity: flaws make leaders human.  There is an honesty, a humility, a frailty and an earnestness about being flawed, being real. And it’s very attractive.  Authenticity is the hipster beard of leadership training.

Authenticity is but one of a number of theories about leadership: we have models of excellence in leadership from the military, from those who think you can have it all by instigating effective habits, we not only have leaders, we have great leaders, quiet leaders, leaders on the line, leaders modelled on leaders from last century (and the one before), tribal leaders, technical leaders, high altitude and inspirational leaders, grateful leaders, servant leaders, wise leaders, principled leaders, values-driven leaders, spiritual leaders and transformational leaders. Where I wonder, is the tome on had-the-life-sucked-out-me-when-I-was-young-leaders? I did spy a volume on bad leaders and wonder if this is a joke (because hey, they’re really good leaders) or whether they’re just bad, in which case, why write a book about them?

For women who are quiet, who lack self-confidence, why are shy, who may be either introverted or extroverted in their social interactions it’s hard enough to play the confidence game in work cultures. But if on top of this women are suffering from the long term and lingering effects of sexual assault in childhood, with a legacy of having suffered the abuses of power, abuses of trust, exploitation by those who profess to care for them, boundary violations, and succumbed to the threats involved in maintaining secrets on fear of death and a misplaced, yet protective loyalty towards the very perpetrators of abuse, well, it’s not a level playing field is it? And we’re talking about one in four women here.  The echoes of this are mirrored in the present.

The trouble with child sexual assault is that the dynamics never really go away. They continue to be felt in far reaching and unanticipated ways as women negotiate their way through their everyday lives, and this includes work. A new manager starts work and asks you for something and you respond in a familiar pattern of subservience and wonder why? Someone startles you at work and you recoil as if you’re about to be hit. Disclosures on the news about the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Abuse cause an abreaction, unusual behaviour and cause you to want to flee. You always seem to take on a lower role than you know you’re capable of, because you’re not able or willing to subject yourself to the stresses involved in taking on more.

Glass ceilings speak to the overt sexism that denies women opportunities to progress but there are far more subtle ceilings that need to be broken through in order for women to really flourish at work. And leadership roles, leadership training and all the insights, benefits and rewards that accompany this are part of this.

The seductiveness of leadership training and its potential rewards in leadership may not be available to all. However there may be a group of women at work who could benefit from all that leadership training has to offer, and in turn would benefit the workplaces to which women are attached. If leadership is part of the road to self-actualisation, then the lessons inherent within leadership training are desirable, even essential for women in the workplace with private histories of sexual assault that prevent them from becoming fully empowered both in their work and in themselves.

Just imagine it.

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