"I recently had Laura Clydesdale come on the podcast to talk women’s leadership, her philosophy on failure, grit and teaching children how to take risks1. Laura speaks eloquently on a variety of topics around parenting and it was a pleasure to explore strategies with her. Her main focus as a blogger is writing and teaching about girls' leadership.
I knew we would have a great conversation when I read some of her thoughts on teaching leadership to girls and woman 2. Like it or not (I don’t) society teaches leadership differently to girls than boys.
Laura and I confabulate3 on how girls are taught to be assertive much differently than boys, girls tend to apologize even when they have done nothing wrong or as a disclaimer. When girls in leadership share their point of view it can be perceived as “bossy” instead of a leadership quality. And many other leadership issues from being “smart”, being assertive, showing confidence and avoiding conflict.
Raising daughters is as important as ever. Especially in this day and age. The world is at their fingertips and we need to make sure the playing field is level. If you have a daughter make sure to read Laura’s thoughts on teaching leadership. If nothing else, reading her words will reinforce and solidify your approach to parenting."
To learn more about Laura, follow her on Twitter @l_clydesdale
She is also Co-Chair of TEDxYouth@EB and Notes & Words for UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland. How awesome is that? ↩
Plus she’s a Golden State Warriors fan…so we have kindred spirits on how to play team basketball. ↩
I’ve always wanted to use that word in a post. Check. Done. ↩
Jon Filitti: Hello Laura. Welcome to the podcast.
Laura Clydesdale: Hello. Thank you, John!
JF: So, I wanted to talk to you about everything that you’re engaged in and all the different roles that you play. Would you say the biggest role that you play right now is blogging about girls leadership?
LC: My career has taken an interesting trajectory and so, yes, the short answer is yes. But to just give you a little background on how I got there, I was a general leadership development consultant, had one-on-one executive coaching clients and was working with companies on team facilitations, etc when all of a sudden I started noticing my 10-year-old daughter (she’s now 12) exhibiting some of the same career derailing habits that some of my female adult clients were exhibiting. It was sort of this interesting a-ha moment. Does it really start when you’re 10? And so I started keeping a journal and trying to go out and find research that was going to help me facilitate her out of some of these bad habits that she was starting to embrace when I realized that there really was nothing out there for young girls. There are a couple of individuals that are doing fantastic work in really narrow slices but nothing in a broader sense. So I started using adult research…research that Corporate America uses…and tried to flip it a little bit and make it a little more simplified so I could work with my daughter. I kept a journal and after a while my husband said this is great stuff you should probably start blogging. I’m like… blogging? So I just threw it out there and really didn’t tell anyone about it and then people just started to come.
JF: Did you feel vulnerable when you first started to blog?
LC: Oh yeah! Absolutely. You put yourself out there. You have 900 words or so to try to make it as simple as possible, keep people with you, and then you open yourself up for people to misinterpret those words. At the same time I was letting my daughter be vulnerable. She reads them all before I post them but they are sometimes very very tense, vulnerable moments that she is willing to share with everyone in the hopes that maybe some of these kids and parents can avoid what she is going through.
JF: Wow. So what have you found? What are the posts or the ideas and concepts that have struck a chord with the most people in terms of women’s leadership or girls’ leadership?
LC: I think the biggest ones..well, you said vulnerability and that’s a huge one…the perfectionism problem women feel is big. Girls in particular feel they have to be little-miss-perfect. They have to hide behind their straight-A’s. When they do, they don’t take risks because, you know, when you take risks it probably means you are going to make a mistake or you might fail. Then you are no longer perfect. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy where you stay very contained in your small little world and you don’t experience all the upsides and joy of success. Another one that’s really big is how to deal with the failure. My daughter recently didn’t make her soccer team and how she dealt with that, actually taught me a few things about how you have to own the feelings you have…the disappointment…the hurt…and when you do, you can rebound a little faster. We talk a lot about grit. I think that’s kind of a buzz word lately but it’s a really important one. Another one is doing everything to make sure you preserve your nice girl image.
JF: It’s interesting to go back to risk for a second. Boys are told to take risks. It’s encouraged.
JF: Why do you think it’s different.
LC: I think the biggest thing, and I’m not an expert, I’m still figuring this out myself…
JF: I want you to answer for all mankind here.
LC: OK, here we go! Everyone listening? No…I think the real issue is when you look at the history books, even though there are women in there, there are a lot of men. Also, when you look at those heroes, they did something so spectacular that they actually made the history books. It’s a frightening prospect if you believe you will come out of high school and must lead nations, or charges, or civil rights movements in order to be considered a “leader”. They don’t really transition you into the small incremental steps that it takes to get you to a leadership role. I think teachers…it’s been proven that teachers automatically give a waive on boys and encourage this and girls are expected to sit more quietly and be good girls and polite and nice and by doing that, again, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. I think it’s more like death by a thousand duck bites than it is one major thing. I think we just very slowly over time indoctrinate boys and girls with very subtle clues, very subtle statements, that push them in that direction rather than it being one big major issue. Does that make sense?
JF: Yeah. Absolutely. Which goes back to, I know you and I had a little bit of discussion regarding the concept of failure and it’s even been brought up already. I love getting people’s insights on what they feel failure is. It sounds like you’re saying that the opposite of risk, or part of risk, is failure because that is always going to be a chance that you have to take. That’s what risk is. So what’s your concept of failure just in general.
LC: In terms of the upside or how I would approach failure?
JF: Yeah. How have you dealt with failure in the past?
LC: Well, I think in the past I didn’t do such a great job. I think I did a lot of what many people do, which is they try to hide it or they make excuses or they become defensive and that kind of saves your pride a little bit. There’s a fantastic author and researcher named Brene Brown…many people may have heard of her book Rising Strong…but she’s proven that the people who can bounce back the best from hurt and failing are those that actually look at their failings…really look at the emotion and get curious about it…you know, “why am I feeling that way?” She calls it reckoning with those emotions. When they say, “OK, yeah I screwed up,” then they can finally move on. When you decide where you are, that’s when you begin building your own story. OK, that happened to me. It may have been my fault, or it could have been something that happened to me that I had no control over. A lot of times that happens. But, are we going to let this story define us or are we going to define our own end of the story? I think that’s what Brene Brown does so well.
JF: Yeah, don’t try to push through it, sit in it for a while.
LC: It’s hard. Talk about vulnerability.
JF: When did you figure this out do you think? And I know you’re not going to say I’m perfect and I have this down 100% all the time but did it take until your adulthood to understand the concept?
LC: Definitely. And it took a couple really tough things that happened in my life and one in particular to realize that certain things are beyond your control. That’s when I think it came together for me. Because there were no excuses. There was no nothing. I just had to deal with it and then figure out how I wanted to live the rest of my life with that.
JF: So do you feel like success came more rapidly after that or in a more fulfilling way?
LC: I think both. Because when you actually sit in your failure a little bit, I think you come to the realization that maybe it’s not so bad. I mean, it feels really bad! It feels awful initially. But once you start really looking at it you realize the earth will continue to spin and, you know, at the end of the day there are a lot great things in life and these failures, they seem so monumental and huge at the time, but they do pass. You have all of these other things to look forward to. So you start to not fear the failure so much because you realize that perspective. Then you take more risks and the upsides happen, which are exhilarating, and you realize the upsides way outweigh the not so great disappointments and failure. It seems like highs get higher and the lows become more in perspective as time goes on.
JF: The perspective is important. Things that we felt were so important when we were in 8th grade aren’t necessarily as important any more. We start to gain that perspective for the rest of life. Things happen that shakes us and we live through it and we build upon it. Are you listening Sarah Burkhart? I’m no longer broken hearted!
LC: (laughs) Right. And it’s difficult to say this and expect someone to go, “yeah, great” and then easily apply it. You really have to live through it. That’s the toughest part. I think ultimately this goes back to my leadership blog. As parents, we try to protect our kids so much from failing and disappointment and all those bad emotions. Instead, the more we can talk our kids through those emotions and explain how this is a part of life, helps put that into perspective for them. So when they hit 8th grade and Sarah breaks up with my son I can try to help him through it instead of, and this literally does happen…calling the other parents trying to fix it for him. You can’t fix it. You just need to talk to your kid.
JF: The new thing is, not that the parent will call the other parents, the parent will text the other child. That’s been happening a lot more frequently. What are we doing here people?
LC: You know what parents will also do? They will call or email bosses.
JF: Oh, for teenage kids.
LC: No, adult children. Honestly, this happens. Parents will call a boss after their child has received a poor performance review.
LC: Yeah, it’s bad. So, that point that it’s getting a little out of control is right. We want to shield our children. It’s natural, but all we do is stunt their ability to be more resilient.
JF: You and I can’t sit here and say, hey, we need to sit in it as adults and then look at our children and say, they shouldn’t have to. But once you’re a parent the worst thing for you to watch is your children going through pain, whether it is physical or emotional. Every part of your being wants to protect themand run in and make sure that they are OK. Sometimes you just have to back off and let the world happen.
LC: It’s so hard to watch it. It’s like do what I say and not what I do. (Laughs) I’ve made many mistakes on this, we’ve all made mistakes, and I will continue to make mistakes on this.
JF: It’s tough to consequence when you know something is going to hurt really badly.
LC: It’s tough being a parent! It’s the hardest job, right?
JF: At least the pay is really good.
JF: So what is the most important quality that you look for in other people. And I want your answer both regarding leadership and just in general for friendship.
LC: Well, in leadership, I would have to say that a person who is driven by vision rather than by profit or the end result. I know that is very broad but when someone exhibits a passion and vision for something, it’s really easy to get behind that person and you really want to follow them. I’ve had a couple of bosses who’ve had intense vision and they’ve been completely different kinds of bosses and I could still follow those individuals. It kind of smooths over some personality issues. When individuals are super nice but they are all profit focused, it can be a real grind when you don’t have a purpose or a reason for going to work every day. Obviously, there are so many other ones. You want someone who cares about your growth and cares about your development. In terms of friendship, I would say I just love a sense of humor. Life can be so serious and we talked about the failure and the vulnerability piece. If you can keep going through life with a sense of humor and openness to things changing, it helps.
JF: So you are basically saying you love people whether they are leaders or friends who are genuine. I think everyone wants genuine people around them. The trick is finding out and having a good compass for who is genuine and who is not and what is genuine and what isn’t.
LC: It can be tough. I think a lot of us walk through life with this imposter complex which creates a situation where we are not genuine. Because we are so worried about what others are thinking. This is a perfect example. We talked about the blog earlier and being vulnerable. For a while, I was writing in a protection mode and it wasn’t really good writing because I was too worried about what other people would think of me. Therefore, I wasn’t being genuine. I think that happens a lot in the work world. I think that happens a lot in the world in general. We go through life, “Oh, someone’s going to find out about me…I’m really not this person…I’m really not this smart…I shouldn’t be in this room with these people…I’m over my head.” What it does is change your behavior. Because you are constantly thinking about what other people are thinking, you try to modify your behavior rather than just being vulnerable, being yourself and being genuine.
JF: So when you were writing the blog to begin, what were you worried about people thinking about you?
LC: That I was a bad mom. For sure.
JF: Ahhh. Because you were being honest and genuine.
LC: Right. If you talk about the messy underbelly of parenting you’re bound to strike a chord. You know I have had some pretty awful comments. I don’t read comments any more let’s just put it that way. Some of the comments that have been posted…there’s just a bunch of people out there..I have to realize those individuals don’t know anything about me and they’re just making an assumption. Or maybe there is something bad going on in their life. But I know who I am. And my friends all know who I am and they all love it so as long as they’re happy and I don’t get a call from my mother asking me if I’m abusing my daughter, then it’s OK!
JF: Were some of the comments in the abusive realm?
LC: The one I read that made me stop reading comments was from the Washington Post article I wrote about how if you send your kids to summer camp. And I just used summer camp as an example of this perpetual need to over-schedule our kids over the summer and that maybe we should just let them have a summer where they can lay in the grass and look at the trees. Ironically, if you do that you help your kids even more because they become more creative and they get perspective on life, etc. Anyway, I was just trying to use this as a tool. But the comment that came out of sending my kid to summer camp was, “Those kids are lucky to get away from her.”
LC: Yeah…That’s when I realized that some this stuff wasn’t rational. Some of this stuff was coming from a place where I didn’t even know how it could possibly be perceived that way. That’s when I decided that I just needed to write the way I write and if those people come and want to think that way then that’s their problem and not mine.
JF: It’s almost a blessing in disguise. That it was that far leaning of hate that you’re like, wait a second, well this is just ridiculous.
LC: I would say so.
JF: So do you have comments turned on for your blog or is this when you went on the Washington Post?
LC: It was the Washington Post. The net was thrown much wider. Everybody on my blog has been incredibly respectful and wonderful.
JF: Because they come to you looking for that information and it’s not people just reading the sports section.
JF: But we are both sports fans so we don’t want to throw them under the bus. Should we talk about the finals? No, no no. Keep talking. Sorry.
LC: We should be talking about football. That’s coming up soon, right?
JF: Too soon. So where were we? I got off on sports. The hate that was coming from some of the comments. So you were able to turn that in and say, “I’m not going to let this affect me. I’m moving forward. The more I’m myself the better I’ll feel about the product and the words I’m putting out there.”
LC: Right. And here’s a perfect example ofmy blog. My daughter came back from a field trip. She went to a wonderful marine biology institute with her school’s science class for three or four days. There was a bunch of bad stuff that happened with the girls. You know, typical mean girl behavior. It was unwarranted and silly stuff. Like your hair is frizzy. I’m not going to tell you what it actually was but you couldn’t control it. It was bad criticism. So she came home and, of course, I started thinking, oh, this could be a great blog post on how to deal with this kind of criticism. So we started chatting about it and then I started singing Taylor Swift…”haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate..” She’s rolling her eyes. OK mom. Great. I get it. And then literally three days later my Washington Post piece hit. It was great, I ended up laughing last last because it was very popular and I got a lot of really great feedback but some of these comments came in and I was devastated! (Laughs) And I turned to her and I said, “Do you have ayn words of wisdom?”
JF: Did she sing the song?
LC: (laughs) Yeah, she did. She’s like, you know, it’s a lot easier to say things from the sidelines than when you are actually going through it. And I said, “Yeah it totally is!”
JF: Again, do as I say and not as I do.
LC: Exactly. We do that often. Go back and forth like that because these things keep popping up whether you’re ten, eleven, twelve or whether, you know, I’m not going to say how old I am. Middle of life.
JF: (laughs) I want to shift the topic back to girls’ leadership because one of the things that I saw in some of our back-and-forth was that you say girls like to apologize a lot even for things that they haven’t done wrong or that is not their fault. We always used to give my grandmother a hard time because she used to apologize for things that didn’t need to be apologized for and it became an endearing trait as she got older and we loved her so much and all that. But when I saw you write that I started thinking, oh, but that can be insidious. Of course it wasn’t for her because no one took advantage of it. I think it was more habit than anything but it could be insidious as far as going down the line of future generations and what does that mean? I know I have picked it up as well. Just yesterday someone said, “You don’t have to apologize for anything. I come to you for advice and you are throwing out all of these disclaimers before you even say it.” Once I said it he said, “Oh, thank you for the disclaimer because that was pretty harsh.” But even I have the tendency to do that sometimes. I just want to pick your brain about that both for women and then all of us in general.
LC: Well, I do think that used properly, and it sounds like the way you used the disclaimer was used properly, it isn’t a problem. Because if you have credibility already and people look at you as a professional and you have that competence already laid down as a foundation, using speech disclaimers can actually make you more powerful, believe it or not. It allows people to view you as human. You can say, “I don’t know if this is right or not.” There is a bunch of stuff lately where women are not supposed to be saying any of this stuff. I don’t necessarily want to throw the baby out with the bath water because when you work on a team, for instance, using speech disclaimers is much more team oriented. However, the key, the real nuance to using it powerfully, is you have to have credibility. You have to have the respect from the people you are using it with. It sounded like you had that respect, you had that competence, that person was coming to you for advice and you were using a speech disclaimer in an appropriate way. Where it really gets insidious is when we have this nice girl mentality. There’s a great author named Rachel Simmons. She wrote Curse of the Good Girl. It’s really a bible in our house. If something happens I flip through there first to see if Rachel has some sort of statement because girls go through life with the absolute objective of everybody liking them. They view a lot of things in life in terms of friendship. For instance, a long time ago, my daughter was saying that her soccer coach was mean and didn’t like her. I asked, “Why?” She told me because he yells a lot. I said, “Is he yelling at you in terms of saying are you an idiot because that is really bad.” She said, “No, he’s telling me where to go on the field.” I’m like, well…that’s coaching. That has nothing to do with friendship. The teacher. Same thing. The teacher game me a C. She doesn’t like me. So we do these crazy things like over apologizing for things that we didn’t do. Here’s a great example, you have this statement: “Sorry, I’m not really an expert, um, but maybe I can help you?” So you end the statement with a question mark, an upward inflection, you’ve said sorry in that statement, you’re not really an expert so you’ve already discredited yourself, or you’ve given yourself a personal put down because you didn’t want to be a bossy girl. When all you really had to say was, “I know how to do this. Would you like me to show you?” What a difference. You’re still polite. This is a much more powerful way of getting across the same thing. So that’s the insidious problem that I think females do and then they carry that with them throughout adulthood. I have a lot of female clients who do this.
JF: And to be clear, this is a mom and dad issue. This is not just something that moms should be working on.
LC: Totally. Completely. And thank you for saying that because men have a tremendous role if a girl is lucky to have her dad present and an interested member of the family to help her grow and develop. Men don’t usually do this. I won’t say they don’t ever do this but a lot of them don’t. However, the flip side of that is that if the moms are doing it the girls say, I’m imprinting, that’s a female, that’s the way I’m supposed to act. The parent sort of has to modify their own behavior in order to show their daughter how to do it.
JF: We’re all little ducks. The opposite with sons, from their dads specifically is, “grow up, be a man” and that type of message.
LC: And that’s just as bad. We don’t allow them to settle into their emotion and their own hurt. Or they have to take risks that they might not want to take. But there are behaviors that men exhibit that girls could say, I can do that and still be feminine. I can have respect when I do these types of things that men do.
JF: And it’s not seen as bossy. You look at the Steve Jobs and the Michael Jordans and all those great leaders that we think of throughout history and they were jerks. We know that. We’re OK with it because they’re great leaders. And so I love the work you are doing because you are showing you don’t have to be that way and if you are being that way, not being jerky, but taking a leading role, that doesn’t mean you are being bossy or you should mind your manners, you are being a leader and that’s all we need to be thinking about.
LC: That’s so well said because I’m not necessarily OK with how Steve Jobs was as a leader. I don’t know if you read Walter Isaacson’s biography…
JF: I just got through with it!
LC: Then you know it was a brutal read! Especially for someone who’s in leadership development. Brilliant man and just left all this blood on the floor in order to get where he wanted to go. I’m not sure that a woman would want to say, “Oh, he’s a man, he’s successful, I want to emulate what he did.” That’s absolutely not what you want to do. I think, with bossy behavior, you can say we should get rid of that word “bossy” but the reality is that men and women both have bossy behaviors. The Center for Creative Leadership did a great study on this and concluded that people were viewed just as negatively whether they were a man or a woman if they exhibited those types of bossy behaviors. They were career limiting whether you were a man or a woman. Now, did they use the word bossy to describe the woman more often? Yes. The good news in the research is if you lead effectively you aren’t considered “bossy” whether you are a man or a woman. That is the biggest take away.
JF: Love it! Laura, where can we find out more about you.
LC: You can come to my blog it’s www.lauraclydesdale.com. That’s probably the best or you can follow me on Twitter at @l_clydesdale
JF: You have a good rest of the day.
LC: Thank you so much, John. I really appreciate it. It was fun.