The Claire Underwood school of leadership

Last Sunday, after a week putting out metaphorical fires in South East Asia, I managed to book myself a “me day”. I’m in Kuala Lumpur, in one of the suites of the Mandarin Hotel, enjoying the familiar smell of their newly pressed linen (as the ads say, “I’m a fan.”).  After a run through the Perdana Botanical Gardens and a long, long bath I powered my laptop up: Claire is President and I need a binge-watch.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you may be forgiven. The world’s realpolitik has become so ‘entertaining’ that it’s almost OK to forget the dark mischievous world of House of Cards, the Netflix series that used to belong to the maligned Kevin Spacey (still I believe one of the best actors of his generation). Season 6 was just released with Robin Wright in the role the first female president of the U.S.

Here is the thing, after the first episode, I got a text from Hugh Mann, our HR Director. He needed to confirm things were OK for next week’s Exec Team meeting. I said “Yes. Now I’m going to lose myself in House of Cards, have you seen it?” “Yes, but I quit watching after the first episode. Once I realised she was only playing her version of Kevin Spacey.”

This totally innocuous comment got me thinking about the topic of women in leadership. No matter how you play it, someone is probably trying to see if you measure up, especially if you’re playing it right. Because, given the limited examples we have of women in positions of power, I believe there is less understanding of diversity and different styles of leadership in women. It’s normal, we are only just beginning to experience what a female leader looks like, is, and how she acts and reacts. The trouble is, when it comes to men, we can see leaders of every shade and tend to judge the person and behaviour. When it comes to female leaders – trust me, I’m one – the starting point is always – consciously or unconsciously – gender.

How, you might ask, have I handled the obvious pressures of being a female leader? I’m still grappling with it, every day. But here are four things I use to guide me in my journey:

  • A mirror – It can be a mentor, a colleague or your right-hand person. It’s someone who can look at you and give you the encouragement and/or the reality check you need. It is someone who knows you from your pre-leader days and can cut through the trappings of power. See: IABC UK’s mentoring programme
  • Noise-cancelling headphones – I use Globocorp’s own “STFU” brand (available at all our stores), the best in the market (of course). You need them to mute and silence the critics. Particularly the ones within. I don’t get the impression that effective male leaders replay every meeting and pull apart every decision they make to imagine a better reaction. In my experience, women tend to do so, we ruminate. So brush off that voice and only listen to her when it’s time to reflect. Brené Brown has some very useful tips on how to silence the inner critic.
  • A compass Sometimes I get lost in the power-jostling, life-balancing, decision-making maze I call my job. Should I fight for that extra million for a new campaign? Should I get involved when I see Buck cutting the canteen budget in our operations? Should I push back when my CEO makes a ridiculous request? How to know? I consult my compass. My true north is the purpose we -as a company- are here to fulfill. My decisions should always align with it. Frankly, sometimes I go off-piste, but that’s OK. The compass is there to bring me back.
  • A skills lab – A safe space to flex your decision-making muscles.  Would you get on a plane with a pilot that hasn’t successfully landed lots and lots of planes in simulation? Would you let a surgeon who had never used a scalpel take out your appendix? Many of us have prepared organizations to respond to crisis through simulations, stress testing a team’s response to media and organizational pressures. It works. We know it. But why should ‘crisis’ have a monopoly on simulations? When was the last time you took your team on a simulation to build their skills in other areas?

I’m still watching the last few episodes House of Cards, so no spoilers, please. I think Robin Wright is delightful in her complex back and forth between total evil and vulnerability, but ask me again after I finish watching. In the meantime, let me know what you think.

And if you want to put your toe into the waters of leadership and learn in the process, I can be the head of your skills lab. Bring a session of Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders to your team.