You go (shy) girl!

“I think it’s important for shy girls to be able to be seen as leaders too,” said the, no doubt, shy girl sitting among a circle of 20 or so middle schoolers at a girls’ leadership summer camp. We were brainstorming a list of leadership qualities that we–not the media, not parents, not teachers, not even friends–deemed critical.

I thought this point was not only brave, but very astute. As I make the rounds of girls’ leadership development programs and camps this summer (I’m thrilled to be headed to The Girls Leadership Institute next month, co founded by one of my favorite human beings, Rachel Simmons), I’ve been thinking a lot about the kind of leadership model we are pushing for young women. I fear that too often we present leadership as something necessarily loud and a leader as someone who must seek the limelight. It’s understandable, of course, that the pendulum has swung in this direction; after all, we’re facing up against centuries of the reverse socialization–the ideal woman as demure, quiet, and in the shadows. We’re doing our damnedest to convince the next generation of women that they don’t have to shrink from opportunities just to feel feminine or keep quiet so as not to offend the, assholes, I mean traditional leadership structure.

But, sometimes I fear that in our well-intentioned advocacy for more assertive, more outspoken girls, we’ve sometimes made those whose style is naturally quieter and less showy feel as if they aren’t bonafide leaders. Leadership, at its core, is about each of us being self-aware about our own gifts and figuring out how to put those in service of ourselves and the world, constantly seeking feedback and growing, constantly seeking out collaborators, constantly taking risks and developing our capacity for resilience along the way.

Susan Cain has an upcoming book on our entire culture’s bias for extroversion this fall, but in the meantime she published a bit on her thinking in the New York Times last Sunday. She argues that our very modern tendency to pathologize shyness “does us all a grave disservice, because shyness and introversion — or more precisely, the careful, sensitive temperament from which both often spring — are not just normal. They are valuable. And they may be essential to the survival of our species.”

It’s critical that we uphold a range of leadership styles, including those that fall on the quieter end of the spectrum, as we nurture a new generation of female leaders.

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