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Female Lieutenant-General on leadership: 'Figure out who you are'

“You want to be a great leader? Start by figuring out who you are.” On February 2nd, Elanor Boekholt-O’Sullivan, the first female three-star general of the Netherlands, addressed the students of the Leiden Leadership Programme in an inspirational seminar about leadership and authenticity. “Hearing this tonight has given me the confidence to be myself.”

The Leiden Leadership Programme (LLP) is a one-year honours programme for master’s students. Participants are challenged to think critically about leadership and to develop their own skills through skills trainings, electives and interdisciplinary lectures. The Lieutenant-General’s seminar is one of two special guest lectures that was also open to non-LLP students.

Following your moral compass

After humorously introducing herself as “just Elanor, an introvert with a fear of public speaking”, the Lieutenant-General asked the crowd to please be brutally honest and interactive. Questions that stood out even merited a box of Celebrations from Elanor, as part of her first lesson for the young leaders in the Cleveringazaal: “Handing out gifts to make people like you is easy. The challenge is to keep following your moral compass when everything is changing around you. Once you are a leader, you are no longer part of the crowd.”

Being yourself

So, what makes a good leader? Most importantly, dare to be yourself.  “If the situation is challenging you to behave a certain way and you try to, you will not be a great leader. So, you start by figuring out who you are. How do you do that? Trial and error.”

Anecdotally drawing on personal experiences, Elanor explained why being yourself is so important. After her promotion to her current position as the first female three-star general in Dutch history, she was afraid to say her rank, even within the Ministry of Defence. “The other generals are ten years older than me, most of them are male, and I thought I had to behave like them. I thought through using my rank, my position, I would become someone I did not want to be.”

A colleague, commenting that Elanor had lower self-esteem than they thought she would, changed the way she thought. “If people think I have low self-esteem anyway, I might as well be me again. And ever since, I have been.”

Social jungle

Sometimes it takes hitting your head against a wall to realise: am I being the person people expect me to be, or am I being me? After deciding to be herself, Elanor’s demeanour changed, and her interactions with other people with it: “I am now consistent in managing things I don’t agree with and think we should work on. I’m not working at the Ministry of Defence to be the nicest colleague; I’m working there to help build a way towards peace.”

Elanor empathized with the students of the LLP and their own struggles with fitting in. “You can only try to be you. Every time you try to be somebody else, it doesn’t work out. I hope that all of you, whenever in life, figure out who you are in this social jungle you find yourselves in.”

The biggest barrier is you

The Lieutenant-General has felt that, as a female leader, she is not always taken seriously by male soldiers or other leaders. “But I’ve become comfortable with that feeling! I know that I just have to do my job and within days, weeks, sometimes months, they will see what I’m capable of. Then things will change.”

The biggest lesson Elanor has learned concerning women’s emancipation may be surprising: “The hardest thing is, women have the tendency to say, ‘Ik wil leuk werk. I want a fun job.’ What happens then is that people, mostly men, will say the nice jobs are in the lower ranks and the tough, complicated ones are in the higher ranks. The biggest barrier to your career, I am sorry to say, is often yourself. As a woman especially, you have to say ‘I love complex work. I love wicked problems.’ Women are great analysts!”

'Get out of your own way'

Elanor’s message certainly rung true for the students present. John (25, Statistics and Data Science): “What I’ll be taking away from tonight is to strive to be myself. Some of my past education and experiences have told me that I should blend in more. Hearing this tonight has given me the confidence to be myself.”

Students experience it as refreshing to hear from people outside the world of academia, which is an important goal of the LLP. Rush Massey (29, Political Theory and Law): “We need to hear from people who are actually leading out there. Who are getting stuff done and telling us what works! If Elanor’s telling us ‘Being yourself works’ from experience, why would I try to be something else? Get out of your own way!”

Text: Merijn Mulder
Photos: Eric van den Bandt

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