4 min read

Lead like yourself - stories from women leaders

Becoming your own kind of leader - with skill and confidence.

When you ask experienced women leaders to tell the story of their working lives, Oxford research shows that three particular themes emerge, even though the stories themselves differ. [i]

Firstly, they all experienced a time when they recognised their own leadership and accepted the need to make trade-offs in order to make a difference in the world. The theme of self-acceptance is also there throughout their journey - the acknowledgment as they look at that themselves that this is what they have to work with.   

Secondly, the theme of self-development, the visible and proactive ownership of their own development. These women leaders don’t wait for the annual performance appraisal discussion to help them to identify what they want to develop - they make their own plans, choosing what and how to develop new skills and approaches to the increasingly complex problems of the 21st century. 

And thirdly they manage their working lives consciously, both day-to-day and over the course of their working lives. They make their own definition of what success means, set their own goals and plot their own course to reach them. They talk about managing themselves day-to-day, to find an authentic leadership approach that works in different situations.  

Interestingly, these same themes appear in the recent resignation speeches of two political leaders at opposite ends of the world – Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand from October 2017 to January 2023 and Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister November 2014 to February 2023.

I leave behind a belief that you can be kind, but strong. Empathetic, but decisive. Optimistic, but focused. That you can be your own kind of leader.

In Jacinda Ardern’s speech on 19 January she makes clear that she knows and accepts her own skills and capacity - 'I know what this job takes, and I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice.' She has been managing herself and matching her approach to the challenges that her country faces - she has taken 'the responsibility to know when you are the right person to lead, and also when you are not.' And she ends her speech with 'I hope … I leave behind a belief …that you can be your own kind of leader'.

Is carrying on right for me? And more importantly, is me carrying on right for the country, for my party and for the independence cause I have devoted my life to?

A few weeks later in Edinburgh on 15 February Nicola Sturgeon speaks in a similar vein saying since the very beginning ‘I have believed that part of serving well would be to know, almost instinctively, when the time is right to make way for someone else.’ She talks about the nature and scale of the challenges the country faces and says she feels 'that duty, first and foremost, to our country – to ensure that it does have the energy of leadership it needs.'

At Saïd Business School we are passionate about supporting women in their leadership journey and these themes are exactly what we focus on during our residential and online development programmes for women: helping women leaders to define the kind of leader they want to be to lead successfully in their particular context. We have no recipe, no single model that exhorts women to be like this person, or that person - rather, we want them to lead like themselves, with increased skill, kindness and confidence.  

During our programmes, some women acknowledge fully for the first time that they are indeed leaders, whatever their job title. Participants explore the challenges they face and the kind of leadership that is needed. And they serve as role-models for each other, exchanging ideas and insights about how to lead well.  

All participants leave the programme as part of a strong global network of women leaders, but most of all, they leave with a greater sense of confidence. They tell us this as they leave, and it’s obvious as we watch what they go on to do after the programme. This confidence is an outcome from their self-development - from all they have learned, done and reflected on during the programme. It comes from a clear sense of their strengths and their capacity to manage their own working lives.  

They leave as energised, skilful leaders, who understand the challenges they face more clearly.   

They leave ready to lead like themselves.  


[i]  Claiming the corner office: female CEO careers and implications for leadership development (2018) by Dr Andromachi Athanasopoulou, Professor Michael Smets and Professor Tim Morris


This piece was originally published on January 27th and updated February 15th after Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation.