When you think of a “leader,” who do you see? Many people think of a tall white man in a suit. Long ago, I decided that I wanted to do my part in changing that image.
As I’ve grown in my career and taken on leadership positions, I resisted the idea that a powerful leader was mutually exclusive from a woman who likes to wear high heels and a killer dress. In fact, after I moved from France to Silicon Valley, I refused to dress down in a hoodie and jeans to fit in, kept my beloved heels, and embraced my French accent (my efforts to lose it were useless anyway). It became my signature style. Different, feminine, but also truly empowering. This gave me the confidence to take on bigger and bigger challenges. I’ve even given speeches encouraging women to embrace whatever image is true to their authentic self — and drive toward it. Recently though, I’ve come to realize that associating my strength as a leader too closely with how pulled together I feel and what I look like is actually problematic.
A few months ago, I learned that I had serious complications with my pregnancy, and I was prescribed bed rest. This is not the glamorous, romantic bed rest of Victorian novels, but relentless, stressful, boring, and uncomfortable. I have to lie on my side all day long, fully horizontal.
When it happened, I felt lost. I decided to continue working to maintain some sanity, but wondered: how was I supposed to continue to lead my team and command their respect when I felt and looked like this? When every day is a bad hair day? I couldn’t even sit-up and gesture to make a point in meetings. Nothing could be further away from my image of leadership than lying in bed, surrounded by bottles of meds, scared, weak and vulnerable. No more high heels. No more perfect hair. No more killer dresses. No more sitting at the head of the table. No more commanding a room through the movements I knew so well. My projection of what I felt I needed to be to lead simply didn’t accommodate for the chaos of life anymore.
At the beginning, I dialed into meetings, choosing not to turn on the video. I was worried I’d lose my credibility if people could see me on the other end of the camera, without my usual armor. After a while, some members of my team asked me to turn on the camera during our 1:1 meetings — it was odd, sitting in a room talking to a faceless voice by yourself, they said. To my surprise, seeing me in a horizontal position with no make-up on didn’t seem to lessen the impact of my words. I started turning the webcam on in more and more meetings and got similar reactions.
Past the initial surprise, and murmurs of concern, people wanted to hear my opinion just as much. One particularly rough day, I called in wearing a truly disgusting T-shirt. Bed rest means you have to do everything lying down — including eating. It’s a new skill I’m working on, but definitely not easy, and this particular day, I definitely had some Nutella on my shirt. After that meeting, a colleague wrote me: “Loved the T-shirt today. As much as I like your always flawless style, it’s nice to see another side of you.” I noticed that another person from my team, who used to always take a very professional tone with me, began to open up more about their private struggles during our weekly meetings, and I have to believe that seeing me be a vulnerable mess, propped up by 10 pillows, made that a lot easier.
I confided to one of my coworkers that I was worried about people keeping this “weak” image of me in mind even after I returned to full health after seeing me so many times on VC calls lying in bed. I told him how I would try to hide my emergency trips to the hospital, so people didn’t think I was unreliable. But to my surprise, he told me that most people in the office were impressed by how strong they thought I was throughout all this — both for continuing to care about my team and their efforts, and for my outlook and positivity. It was the last sentiment I would have imagined.
Although I wouldn’t wish this experience on anyone, I am grateful for what it’s teaching me about myself. While I would still much rather be on my high heels, and in my familiar armor, I’ve come to appreciate that vulnerability doesn’t have to be a weakness. While I focused on my external image of power, I realize now that I wasn’t focused enough on my inner strength. An inner strength that, now that I am aware of it, will help me lead in many different ways through life’s many different messy situations. An inner strength that is not measured by outward poise, or my appearance. I look forward to the day that can I wear my heels and my make up again, but only because I truly love them, and no longer because I think I need them in order to feel powerful. Leadership is not an image, it’s a quality. I hope one day to teach my daughter that lesson.