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Thick skin is not the answer for women leaders

Photo by Photo of rhino by David Clode on Unsplash

What do we even call this place we find ourselves?

We used to say these were “interesting times” and used words like wild, unprecedented, and surprising.

Then it moved to “disruptive” and we started to use words like rising, woke and allies.

Now I hear us talk about “profoundly disturbing”, using words like broken, eff’d up, and lost.

  • How do we move forward when everything feels so heavy?
  • How do we stay whole when there is so much tearing us apart?
  • How do we keep ourselves supple and fluid so we don’t get brittle?

These are the questions that keep me—and my clients—up at night.

I was one of those women who wore shoulder pads in the early 90s at my first job. I hated those shoulder pads. And those awful stockings.

Everything about it felt like a uniform—but back then I didn’t think being a woman was relevant to anything.

I wasn’t a woman leader. I was one of the guys, working for the man, suiting up to fit in at the old boys’ club.

I was told to not take things too personally, don’t be so sensitive, don’t be so emotional, don’t…don’t….don’t.

And yet—I am a person…I am sensitive…I am emotional. Aren’t we all?

Needless to say, I eventually took off my shoulder pads and left—as so many women do. You can read about that bit of my story here.

But recently I’ve been thinking about those shoulder pads and how they might come in handy for woman leaders right now.

Is “toughen up, buttercup” the only strategy available to us? I hope not.

My second book, Ignite: Lighting the Leader Fire explores that territory in more depth—beyond “the way it is” to a place where we follow women’s lead when they’re left to their own resources.

I thought about something I heard Hillary Clinton say years ago when I heard her speak after her book What Happened was released. A member of the audience asked her what advice she had for a woman going into politics. Her response:

“Develop rhinoceros skin.” Photo by Photo of rhino by David Clode on Unsplash

I remember thinking, “What!? NO!” Ick. Ptew. Blech.

I spent a large portion of my life—more years than I care to admit—building up my defenses to outside attacks, buttressing my heart against “taking things personally”, and digging trenches that would somehow protect me from harm.

I forged an iron-clad suit of armor with my own two hands and called myself a warrior, a fighter, a brave-heart, a badass.

You know where that got me?

Exhausted. Jaded. Heavy.

It really hit me in my mid to late 40s when it all felt too much—and not mine. I started to see how those defenses and armor didn’t help—they just made it harder to move, harder to breathe, harder to be seen.

So I started to do something wholly (holy?) different. I started stripping down, taking away the apologies and explanations. I put down the justifications and the need to prove myself. I stepped away from the toxic and stopped participating in the degrading and disparaging.

It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t overnight. But it was systematic and pretty damn conscious.

As a result, I felt freer and certainly lighter—but I also felt more lonely and vulnerable.

That’s because I was exposing the skin that had been living under the rhinoceros skin.

So when I heard Hillary say I needed to put it back on, I called bullshit. I love you Hill, but no way, no how, Madam Secretary.

But how does exposed skin stay healthy in this more violent, toxic world we live in—especially if you live in a woman’s body?

Isn’t that the question so many of us are talking about now?

I got a clue, when I saw my neighbor come out with a tray of little seedlings he’d been growing carefully indoors for the past month. When I asked him what he was doing, he told me he was hardening them.

“Hardening” or “hardening off” is the process gardeners use to transition plants from protected indoor growth (in a controlled environment) to outdoor exposure (with fluctuating climate changes).

I had no idea (and I fear my plants would concur…)

So what’s the status of your seed trays these days?

Are you keeping yourself under the grow lights a bit longer than necessary, living in the quiet corner of your basement? Is it time to take yourself outside into the light of day to give yourself—and us all—some fresh air to naturally harden off?

What if we were to think like a plant, not rhinoceros?

Here’s what that looks like to me (plant wisdom):

  • Make shorter-term decisions, because it’s impossible to forecast the weather next week, let along next month or the rest of my life.
  • Change my mind as the weather changes—let it guide me and inform smaller, everyday actions that have me sprout new leaves.
  • Nourish my roots—because that’s where all growth and new life comes from, and without those, I’m toast.
  • Recognize when I’m root-bound, and trust I will be strong enough to survive the elements and being transplanted.

What that doesn’t mean is this (hello, rhino…):

  • Charging full-boar and head-long at something just because I can—or said I would.
  • Making a lot of noise and posturing to show how big, powerful, and important I am.
  • Talking a big talk and performing for others at the water’s edge because I think that’s what’s expected of me.
  • Clashing with other rhinos just to test my mettle, feel good about myself or sharpen my horns.

So here’s to shedding our rhino skins, my friend—and letting nature takes it course.

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