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Leadership Skills Learned From Cinderella

03/17/2015 01:27 EDT | Updated 05/17/2015 05:12 EDT
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When I found out that they were making a live-action movie version of Cinderella, I was thrilled. I thought that this would be an opportunity to update the tired Princess-in-need-of-rescuing theme and inject a little girl power à la Frozen. Instead, I saw Downton Abbey's spirited Lady Rose squashed into a corset, patiently waiting for her Prince to arrive.

In an era where women are still struggling to be recognized and paid for their leadership skills, it is a frustrating message that one's best shot at elevating her status is to wait patiently for opportunity to appear. Rather than sitting around waiting for a Fairy Godmother to magically deliver your next promotion, here are five movie-inspired steps you can take to prove you are a capable leader and elevate your status at work:

  1. Have courage and be kind. Cinderella was given some sound life advice by her mother who urged her to "have courage and be kind." Unfortunately, Cinderella did not have the opportunity to demonstrate a whole lot of courage or kindness in the film (it's hard when you live in an attic and your only colleagues are mice). Women in business who can strike a balance between courage and kindness tend to be held in higher regard than those who are seen as meek (think Cinderella) or aggressive (think the Wicked Stepmother). While it's irritating that women are often judged more harshly than men when it comes to leadership style, the reality is that courage and kindness are important qualities of all leaders, regardless of gender.
  2. Learn to say no. Women are often socialized to be nice and say yes to any request (think of Cinderella beatifically smiling as she does all of the chores for her stepsisters.) This practice does not serve you well in the executive suite. You need to say yes to those things that allow you and your organization to meet stated goals and no to almost everything else.
  3. Don't be the office scullery maid. Women are often socialized to be helpful. If someone is struggling with his or her work, it's natural to want to pitch in to help. Women spend a disproportionate amount of time when compared to male colleagues on what Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant refer to as "office housework." Often this work is not recognized and can actually be held against you if it takes time away from your other responsibilities. If you find that you spend a lot of time on activities that fall outside your job description, make sure that your efforts are being noticed and rewarded. You don't want to be the one sweeping out the proverbial fireplace when everyone else is at the ball.
  4. Build a great team. Cinderella did not get to the ball on her own. The Fairy Godmother enlisted the help of mice, lizards and a goose in order to get Cinderella to the ball and home again before the last stroke of midnight. Leaders rely on others to help them get to where they want to go. Surround yourself with great people and invest in them so that they will support you when you need their help.
  5. Learn to take risks. The one time that Cinderella showed some spark was when she snuck out to the ball in spite of the risk of further alienating her stepmother. There is a perception that women are more risk-averse than men and this often gets in the way of their promotion to leadership roles where risk is part of the job. Get comfortable taking calculated risks; unlike Cinderella, your coach won't turn into a pumpkin at midnight.

By showing off your leadership chops rather than sitting around waiting for your Fairy Godmother or Prince to come along, you have a better chance of cutting through gender biases and ascending to the top of your organization. Toss those glass slippers (they make it so much harder to climb the career ladder!) and commit to making your own happy ending.

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