Women leaders, please don’t be nice!

Women in leading positions are often judged to be not nice. This is one reason why so few women want to be boss, I believe. Yet, one condition to achieve Sustainable Leadership for Women is indeed to stop being so nice. Women needing to be nice is why we’re practically absent where the decisions are taken, but you’re wrong if you think this means ambitious women have to toughen up. So what should aspiring women leaders do instead? 

The prejudice against ambitious women in the workplace is that they’re dangerous, because they’re ready to push for what they want. They’re thought to be difficult, abrasive, not a team player, and often they get negative performance reviews. Whereas a nice person is pleasing. Someone who doesn’t bother anyone, constantly making sure that others feel good, always lending a helping hand, and cheering up whomever feels blue. A a lovely person to be around, liked by everyone. 

Yet, when such a person was small, being nice usually meant she had to do what she was told: overrule her own desire, allow someone else to get their way, and pretend that she was even happy about it too. That’s when the grown-ups approved of her. So now, she won’t easily disclose what she really thinks or wants, because that might displease those around her. No matter how seething with anger, or deeply hurt she is, most likely she will be smiling. Holding back has become second nature.

Never Perfect

Without being aware of it, she is always on the look-out for how other people judge her, and she derives her self-worth from that judgement. This can make her easy to mislead, or take advantage of. As soon as there is some discord, she blames herself for it. Not only does she usually have an unforgiving inner critic, who scolds her for all her perceived shortcomings, but this responsibility to make sure that everyone feels good and all tasks are properly processed makes her want to control how things are done. Because in her subconscious the outcome is directly related to her self-image.  

She won’t easily disclose what she thinks. Photo by Carlos A. G. Iniguez @unsplash

But alas, things hardly ever work out exactly the way she wants. No matter how many hours she invests, how many skills she acquires, how many of her own needs she ignores, the result is never perfect, never good enough, which means that she isn’t either. Can you see how vulnerable she is to burning out? 

I’ve been there. And I now understand that the origin of being nice is fear. It’s much better for one’s mental and physical health to want to be kind. 

But hang on, I hear you think, isn’t that the same? Often these words are indeed interchangeable, but kindness comes from the heart. It’s rooted in love. You can be kind to someone by not being nice, but honest, for example. It means you care, without needing validation from others.

Rightful Space

When you’re kind, your real inner voice guides you, and the unfriendly one just disappears. You are comfortable with yourself, just the way you are. That’s when you know what it is that you really want, and have the inner confidence to go for it. That’s when you can lead the way, and put your shoulders under your goal without depleting or disliking yourself, no matter how others judge you. 

After fifteen years of studying closely the many aspects of our minds, souls and bodies, I recognise the signs. It pains me to see so many women, and some men too, who are nice on the outside, but deeply unhappy, or even furious on the inside. I found that women are more predisposed to displaying this niceness than men, both because it’s expected from us, but also because of our biology, because of the blueprint of our brain. Luckily we can do something about both.

With Sustainable Leadership I want to contribute to a world in which women can happily be themselves and take up their rightful space. A world in which decisions are driven by kindness rather than fear. 


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