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I recently spoke about this with Anna Chavez, the author, speaker, attorney, and former CEO of The Girl Scouts of the USA. As a strong, successful woman of color, Anna felt throughout her career that she was unfairly labeled as angry or aggressive when she simply voiced her opinion at work. Yet she also had to fight to be taken seriously — an almost impossible balancing act to pull off.Men sometimes face similar challenges on how to be powerful without being overbearing or a jerk. I pay attention to people around me. I have seen people in positions of authority that learned that the best way to lead is to serve. The thing people look for is someone that knows where they are going and encourage others to come along.
Anna told me about one situation early in her career. It was the first time she was sent out to represent a federal agency in an enforcement hearing. She was barely two years out of law school and looked young for her age. She walked into the hearing room in Aurora, Colorado, and found several men already seated at the conference table. One of the officials looked at Anna and asked her if she knew when the hearing officer would be arriving because he and his corporate colleagues were very busy and needed to get back to their office. He assumed that she was a secretary or paralegal. Anna paused and said, “Well, you're lucky. The hearing officer is here and I am ready to start the proceedings.”
All of the men were shocked that Anna would be determining the outcome of this federal hearing, and throughout the proceedings Anna found herself trying to prove her gravitas to these men while still coming across as likeable. In the years since then, Anna has learned to stay true to herself by focusing on the good she was trying to do through her job and always trying to act as a model to others by treating them in the way she wanted to be treated. It may sound like a cliché, but this focusing inward helped her display a quiet confidence that strikes that difficult balance between strong and kind, assertive and empathetic.
To me, Anna is living proof that we don’t have to give up our niceness in order to be powerful. We can make room for others and take up an appropriate amount of space for ourselves. It doesn’t diminish anyone else for you to stand up straight and speak with authority. In fact, it’s a gift to other women to take the space and air time that you need because the more women stop camouflaging themselves, the more we lead the way for every woman and girl to be as powerful as they can be.
Part of my path to healing is to stop hiding behind old ways of groveling to please others and recognize I enjoy helping others and can do this without losing myself.