BOOK REVIEW | Embracing Ambition: Empowering Women to Step Out, Be Seen, & Lead

publication date: Jul 3, 2024
author/source: Lucy White

“I never had a role model for leadership…I just learned what kind of leader I didn’t want to be through lived experience.” Identity, Heather Bach

Every successful leader is unique. Successful leaders are successful because they discover their personal strengths and how to overcome their weaknesses. Over time, with grit and resolve, they might put on and discard leadership models until they develop their own individual style of leadership. And along the way, a few even become famous for catch phrases, individual approaches, or black turtlenecks.

For women leaders, the upward climb is even more difficult. We have lacked leaders to emulate and useful leadership models to follow. Our predecessors have been overwhelmingly male and white. Their leadership styles are based on masculine attributes like competition, impassivity, and vertical, often rigid, hierarchies. Clichés like “no pain, no gain” and “if you want something done right you have to do it yourself” illustrate the leader’s mindset and the leadership lessons we are meant to absorb and copy.

What do ambitious women do to find leadership lessons that speak to women’s attributes, styles, and strengths? How do we evoke empathy, collaboration, integrity, and community in service of our personal leadership journeys and in development of new leadership paradigms?

I recommend Jenny Mitchell’s Embracing Ambition: Empowering Women to Step Out, Be Seen, & Lead. In this collection of essays, Mitchell introduces us to twelve women who are on leadership journeys. They have stories to tell us of their adventures, and they generously impart the lessons they have learned along the way.

Mitchell’s inspiration was Dr. Meghan Rehbein’s research on the lived leadership experience of highly successful women CEOs. Rehbein identified five themes common to women’s leadership journeys: perception barriers, embodied roles, embracing challenge, glass cliff assignments and visionary. Organized along the five themes, Embracing Ambition gathers personal leadership stories that illustrate universal lessons from women with drive and ambition to lead. Each chapter includes “reflection questions” that invite the reader to contemplate how their own story connects with those in the book.

In describing her glass cliff experience “Failing Forward,” Mojdeh Cox writes: “Traditional leadership paradigms reference failure as something to be avoided rather than embraced or expected. Similarly, success is framed around “being perfect.” The reality is that the journey between victories is anything but linear; there are successes and failures, and the steps are rarely linear. The leadership journey has its own organic sequence.”

Challenges such as misogyny and gender-based discrimination continue to place obstacles in the way of women’s leadership. Statistics from Imagine Canada indicate that while women make up 75% of the nonprofit workforce, they hold only 45% of CEO positions ("Women and Leadership," 2023). This underrepresentation points to systemic biases and structural impediments that hinder women's career progression and leadership aspirations.

Women from marginalized communities often face compounded discrimination, limiting their access to leadership roles even further.

In “Boxes,” Onome Ako describes the extra burden carried by women leaders who are “firsts” to represent entire communities. “My loved ones reminded me that this decision didn’t just affect my future. It could affect the entire community…. I could demonstrate that positions of influence could be held by people of color. If one of their own could make it into a leadership position, then maybe it was possible for others to get there too. Putting my name forward to become CEO started to feel like it was part of a much bigger journey toward a more equitable leadership space for people that looked like and spoke like me.”

We still have a very long way to go to create the equitable leadership space that Onome Ako hopes for. Embracing Ambition provides twelve unique stories full of insights, lessons, and leadership models to inspire and support women leaders at all stages of their unique leadership journeys.

Buy the book here.

Lucy White, CPQC is an executive coach and consultant with The Osborne Group She specializes in interim leadership and strategic planning for nonprofits and charities. As a coach, Lucy works with women executives to boldly claim calm, confident leadership their way through Mental Fitness. When not coaching or consulting, Lucy is planning her next trip, hanging out on porches, or trading extra-long novels with her daughter.

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