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The unseen role models that inspire women leaders

At 18-months old, my daughter is a playful, curious, vocal tot who loves to boldly crash her way around the kitchen with her walker, offers regular cuddles to her soft toys and with focused concentration builds her stickle brick structures.  She is (of course especially in my eyes), totally adorable with a winning smile, regularly told by everyone that she is cute, and validated for being clever.  However, I also notice the absence of words such as ‘bold’ or ‘brave’ that subtly add stereotypes on what a good girl is or is not.

I greatly want to protect her from the programming of gender, and equally know that I won’t be totally able to. But, I have a plan; to introduce her to the many amazing role models and female super heroes who give her a map to develop her potential without false limitations.

Likewise, as we develop women leaders of the future, it is simply not enough to be aware of gender bias. Rather it is vital to assess, understand and rewrite the internal gender stereotypes that have seeped, often unnoticed, into our unconscious.

Instead we need to create internal gender allies that value women’s authentic way of leading beyond the ‘double bind’of gendered expectation to break the mould of cultural stereotypes.  An effective way of doing this is to bring in new structures that can become the architecture for women to lead ‘their’ way.

The untold stories of women role models

All the current research points to the critical importance of women role models, however many organisations have the challenge of a lack of senior women. That means for the small number of female leaders at the top of organisations, they can feel an incredible pressure to be the role model that others turn to.

Yet, there are other untold stories of empowered women leaders trail blazing their way to success and fulfilment that are largely hidden from sight.

Whilst Weinstein is losing his empire, Reece Witherspoon is expanding her production company Type A Films, making big budget movies that share different and dynamic women on film (i.e., Wild and Gone Girl) and in 2017 she launched her digital media company Hello Sunshine, “dedicated to telling female driven stories” (i.e. Wrinkle in Time and Big Little Lies).

Children are also seeing new role models with Disney’s lead characters increasingly being heroines with important messages to share; in Frozen, two sisters over-come obstacles and reinstate previously ridiculed powers; Riley in Inside out, succeeds through developing exceptional emotional EQ, and in Brave, Merida’s warrioress partnership with her mother and the wise woman saves the kingdom.  That said, Christopher Bell’s TED Talk on ‘Bring on the female superheroes’ reminds us that there is much yet to do.

In short, the film industry is catching on and heroine leads are being sought.  Not the old version where Prince charming saves the Princess, but instead ones which include the wholeness of women being imperfect and vulnerable, as well as brave and visionary.

These heroines are being sourced from a rich tapestry of stories that have been talked about and shared amongst women for millennia.  They are stories we instinctively connect with and understand, and that inform our life and leadership choices.  These are the stories of female archetypes that go mostly unseen and yet are often the missing blueprint of an individual’s leadership strengths, growth areas and most strongly held values.

Accelerating women’s leadership development through archetype awareness

One map of the inner architecture of women’s leadership is adapted from Jung’s five primary archetypes (see below).  Jung defined archetypes as universal patterns that exist in our collective consciousness.  Each archetype holds powerful patterns of symbols, stories and metaphors that we instinctively relate to.  Their patterns are instantly familiar to us, so by exploring them more fully we can better understand our own behaviour (and that of others) enabling us to access fresh insight, wisdom, and creativity.

The leadership arc

The five core archetypal patterns of women leaders (with ‘Jungian’ type in brackets):

  Empowered Expression In learning phase


Generous and strategic on behalf of her territory, (people/ projects/ causes).  She has a gravitas and a sense of personal authority that enables her to effectively achieve goals through strategic relationships, empowering her people to utilise their talents and resources to the full. Looking for approval, does not know or feel able to care for her territory.  Experiencing the ‘impostor syndrome’ and therefore not taking credit for, or advocating, the value and contribution she brings.

Relational leader

Connects heart to heart, creates fast trust, and leads through openness.  Spontaneous, sharing of her personal and professional self.  Vulnerability is her strength, she can give more of herself, create loyal and lasting relationships with stakeholders because she has clear boundaries. Emotional energy gets depleted and triggered, wears a protective mask of professionalism that keeps her distant from her people.

Thought leader
(Seer/ oracle)

Innovative, insightful, communicator of new ideas in a way that inspires and empowers teams to utilise their expertise to build the new.  Connected to multiple sources of ‘listening’ to the future through communities/ think tanks/ multi-disciplinary groups. Silent, voiceless, and unable to get her message heard.  Feels uninspired and fears challenging the status quo.  Can feel isolated and misunderstood.

Transformational leader

Passionate, active and highly engaged with her people.  Holds her strength and assertive presence in a way that emboldens her team to step beyond what they think is possible. Effectively utilises challenge be it quietly or loudly, playfully or with earnest directness. Can move between passive to aggressive, without the confidence to challenge directly, can use ‘covert’ strategies to achieve goals that over time depletes her energy and the trust base of courageous justice that she has with her people.

Compassionate creative leader
(Mother/ creator)

Cares deeply for and ‘feels with’ her people.  Driven by a responsibility and necessity to care for who and what she considers family.  Excels at creating the systems, environments and cultures where people thrive. Overwhelmed by the needs and demands of those around her.  As a response can martyr herself with over-giving, withdrawing care and attention from where it is needed or becoming overly controlling/ micro managing.

We bring these archetypes into our coaching work because awareness of them provides women with a unique route-map to realising their full potential.  For example, in our coaching sessions we might encourage women to consider:

  • What are the strengths and values of the stateswoman archetype? How might you authentically embody these traits?

  • What can the transformational leader archetype teach you about how to effectively hold your power, challenge and lead in times of disruption?

Starting to work with your leadership arc:

Each archetype is multi-layered and often it is in the intersection of 2-3 archetypes where women find their current authentic leadership profile.  If you are reading this as a women leader and wondering about the focal point of your own leadership arc – ask yourself these two questions:

  • Which archetype do you most closely resonate with?

  • Think of 1-2 women leaders/ role models that inspire you and consider which archetypes they embody?

You likely identify with 1-2 archetypes that, together, best reflect your sweet spot of strengths and your growth edge right now.  However, if you are unsure and yet curious, consider sharing this article with others you trust and start a conversation; you will be surprised how generative and rich this will be.  For businesses that are looking to accelerate the progression of women, why not take this conversation to your women’s networks and leadership groups.

At WDI we are passionate about these types of conversations; both facilitating them and hearing how they unfold for others.  If you start a conversation or want help to introduce these role models into your networks or development initiatives, please do get in touch.

You can read more about our Women’s Leadership Coaching and set up a free – 30 minute coaching call, to explore your coaching needs and leadership development focus.

Author: Clare Russell, WDI Consulting Limited

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