What Expectations are Really Put on Women in Leadership?


There are still many layers of unhealthy expectations for women in leadership positions. Often those expectations are given by others, and can then be adopted as limiting beliefs. Sometimes they are unrealistic expectations you set of yourself, in comparison with others. At The Elevator, we hear stories of women at all levels dealing with different layers of expectation, and how this impacts how they lead their teams and businesses.

In Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In”, she talks about internal obstacles being the biggest thing to hold women in business back.  Sheryl tells a story from her own career to illustrate the point. At her first performance review at Facebook (where she is now COO), Mark Zuckerberg told her that her desire to be liked was holding her back. “If you please everyone,” he said “you won’t change anything.” “Mark was right,” she writes in her book – everyone needs to get more comfortable with women in leadership, Sheryl insists “including female leaders themselves.”

One of the key points in elevating as a female leader, is to understand the subconscious habits that drive you. By understanding these, you will be able to better identify those that serve you, and those that don’t.

Living up to Expectations

A word that comes up time and time again in our work with women in leadership is should. We hear it in our group programmes, in our day to day work with clients, and in our one to one executive coaching.

  • “I should be doing this…”
  • “Leaders should behave like…”
  • “Other women in my position do…therefore I should…”

In the day to day busy-ness of women in leadership positions, it can be easy to live from a place of should, following unrealistic expectations. What if instead, you purposefully acted on what you really wanted to do and that would make you truly happy?

Often the biggest regret of those nearing the end of their lives is that they lived a life that they felt pressured to live. Essentially doing things they felt they should, instead of really going after the things they really wanted.

This impacts across so many areas of life – from the things you should do at home – how you should parent your children, by which age you should be married, what size of house you should live in, saying yes to things you think you should.

Take that into your leadership role and consider what you should do at work – how you should behave if you want to be seen as a great leader, how you should work with that client, how you should interact with the team.

But have you ever stopped to think about how you might want to do all of these things? Or how, if you removed the unrealistic expectations, you might just be happier, and more effective?

The below questions might be useful to think through:

  • Are you truly being purposeful in the things you do?
  • Are you making conscious decisions?
  • How often do you feel authentic in your actions when acting from a place of expectation?
  • Are the things that you’re doing aligned with the outcomes you want to drive?

Imagine if you gave yourself the space to consider what you really wanted – where you spend your time, and where you place your effort?

Take a moment to consider that, and to think through how authentic and aligned with your goals and happiness, your leadership actions are.

Finding Clarity

Should typically comes from a place of fear or comfort – to do what you want is often way harder – it requires us to focus first on ourselves and less on others.

Often we operate from should because in the short term it is the easier solution, the less contentious decision, the more harmonious option. But does it light you up? There’s no real magic in comfortable – the magic happens when you push yourself outside of your comfort zone to see what you’re really capable of. 

It is useful to look at the areas of your life where you feel you are living in a place of should and ask yourself:

“If money, time, energy and circumstances were no barrier – what would I want to do?”

Life is way too short to spend time pursuing things that aren’t true to who you are – find clarity around what you want to do and set it in motion.

Women in leadership positions who lead with more authenticity, following their intuition around what they really want and believe to be right, generate higher levels of respect and buy in from those around them. 

If you’re interested in learning more about how you can elevate your leadership impact you might be interested in our free recorded webinar The Leadership Toolkit for Ambitious Women. In this webinar we take you through some of the thinking, beliefs and behaviours of successful women in leadership. This is a taster session around some of the topics that we focus on in our leadership programmes.

You can also find more information about our Women in Leadership Programme here.