What makes someone a leader?

KaraleadingSome people say that leaders are born, others say they are made. I think we are all born with the possibility of being leaders but we are also all born with the desire to follow because the desire to belong to social structures has existed in humans since the ‘hunter and gatherers’ time. We want to be part of something bigger than ourselves: an idea, a dream, a purpose.

There is a moment in life when you hear a beautiful story, a story that resonates and brings out something that was there, inside of you, all this time.  You feel that a man or woman really understands you and has a vision that you believe in. You are inspired; you follow and, suddenly see other people following as well. Together you have created … The Leader. Without you, she was just a woman with a dream.

When I was as a child, I liked stories with brave kings and princesses and I thought leading was supposed to happen from the front. I had a romantic view of leadership, one that was supposed to be inspirational and uplifting for the people. The first crack in that romantic image of leadership happened on December 22nd, 1989.

On that day, I was playing in the courtyard of our village farmhouse while my mother was doing the laundry. The radio was on playing some classical music. Suddenly, the music stopped and I heard some loud voices saying: ‘The Dictator left, we are free at last, ‘Ceausescu is gone’. In the first ten years of my life I was raised to believe that the ‘Dictator’ was the Father of the country, looking after all the children, like me. I simply could not understand why these people called him a dictator. He was kind and generous and was giving children the opportunity to be brave, learn and to become heroes of our country. He was even giving us presents and sweets at the end of the year, just like Santa Klaus did in the western world.

A year before,  at the age of nine I finally earned the honour to be the ‘pioneer captain’ of my class, a special award in the communist political ranking of school kids.  On that December day, when the music on the radio suddenly switched into shouts of the revolutionary people, I knew that I would lose my pioneer captain title. Hearing the hard truth about our ‘father leader’, who kept people in poverty and crushed the freedom of speech woke me up from my romantic leader ideal.

On that day I learned that leaders who are created through the stories they spread or control can vanish in a flash. I also learned not to trust power, because power can corrupt anyone if held in one man’s or woman’s hand. After 1989 my idea of leadership changed completely. I looked around me for role models and, fortunately, I didn’t have to look far. My grandmother inspired in me generosity for the poor; my grandpa taught me the joy of commitment and duty; my father instilled in me the power of self-confidence and self-belief; and my mother gave me the power of perseverance and discipline.

This childhood experience instilled in me a certain rebel attitude towards people who see a leadership role as a position of power, but it also influenced my deep belief that mothers are leaders, despite the perceived lack of power.

 Nature hasn’t created a single relationship as powerful and naturally strong as the one between a mother and her child. From giving life,  nurturing and raising children and up to they eventually fly the nest, mothers are often the leaders who guide and keep families and communities together.

So, if mothers are indeed leaders, how can we let the whole world see it and admit it?

Anyone who is a parent knows that the best school to develop emotional intelligence is the practice of good parenting because parenthood in itself is leadership.

Daniel Goleman, the man who brought the topic of emotional intelligence into the spotlight in the ’90s, wrote in the HBR article   ‘What Makes a Leader’ about the critical importance of being aware of oneself and of other’s emotions. He also wrote that leaders who want to be successful in today’s world need to develop five crucial skills of emotional intelligence. Adapting Goleman’s’ concepts to women and drawing on my own experience as a mother, I developed a beautiful basket of gifts, including exercises and tips that will help mothers show the world their inherent leadership skills:

  1. Awareness & Empathy: the art of recognising and deciphering your own emotions and the art of being in tune with other people’s feelings.
  2. Social Awareness: the ability to appreciate the diverse perspectives about you and to flex your approach to a situation while staying true to your core.
  3. Self-Management: the strength to recognize and regulate your disruptive impulses and moods.
  4. Social Skills: the intuition required to find common ground and build rapport with other people, balanced with the discipline for managing and harvesting relationships and networks.
  5. Ambition and Drive: to work for something bigger than money and short-term gains.

However the most important gift for any woman who becomes a mother is the inner self-belief that if you had the power to create life you have the power to do anything you set your mind on.

‘Good enough mothers can become incredible effective leaders’. Helen Murlis

What do you think makes someone leaders?


About the Author:

Steliana van de Rijt-Economu is a mother of two and a leadership consultant and coachShe believes that the world would be a better place when more women and mothers  ‘lean in’ to take formal leadership positions in society. In 2019 she published the book Mothers as Leaders.

#Metoo campaign is need it everywhere but in Afghanistan is a human rights issue

As I was reading this shocking article about the rate of sexual abuse in the Afghan I am reminded again how fortunate I feel that my daughter wasn’t born in a country where women can’t feel safe at their workplace.

We are benefiting from the privileges gained for us by the previous generations of women ahead of us and I am reminded every day that we, the western women, have a social duty to fight for the human rights of women from across the world. Current country borders were created by mainly men, after some bloody wars, in an attempt to mark their territory in the same way male lions do it in the savannah.

Women and mothers solidarity should go beyond borders, just like the ‘medicins sans frontier’.

BBC News – The sex scandal at the heart of the Afghan government

A dream comes true…the Mothers as Leaders book

It started as a wild dream five years ago, but it is now a reality.

The book created due to the generosity of many mothers from across the world who shared their life story with me is now available to be ordered via amazon

Thank you to everyone who believed in the power of mothers as leaders and supported me on the way.

Live your dream…

Today we are celebrating Mother’s Day in The Netherlands. If you are a mother with small children like me, you will be surprised with little crafted gifts with many red hearts and sweet little poems. We take pictures of these moments and we might even print them for the album, for later. They form our memories.

The reality is that life with our children is full of opportunities for such moments of connection. You just need to stop, pause, notice it and fully enjoy it. Unfortunately, in my case, what happens is that I am in too much rush to bring them places and to pick them up. I simply miss those pure, ordinary, but memorable moments.

One of those moments happened this last Friday. I was supposed to drive my daughter to her dancing lesson. My son was still upstairs taking his afternoon nap. I rushed downstairs asking her to dress quickly but I noticed she was trying to tell me something, she was delaying.

I was worried that I had to drag Thomas out of bed, despite being still tired and that Kara will be late. I became agitated and impatient. That didn’t help, of course. In the middle of the meltdown. I stopped, looked at the clock and I realised that we will be late. I had a choice. I could be late and in the process make everyone, including me, unhappy or I could re-evaluate and go with the moment. It is very rare for me not to stick with my plan, but I did it. My son slept and I went upstairs with my daughter. She was keen to show me the new book she started to read. I invited her to read to me, while I was relaxing in her bed. I have not felt so peaceful and happy in a long time. And that was only because I was willing to listen.

This week I turned 40 and I realized that life is full of ‘boring’, ordinary moments with my loved ones. These are the best moments and these are the ones you miss, when your dear ones will no longer be around.

From time to time you can live your dream, you just need to open your senses and take it all in.

Is she bossy? The language bias against women

Today is International Women Day, we celebrate women’s courage and beauty. We congratulate each other on our achievements and progress against discrimination and  but, how was this day chosen?

On 8 March 1908 a New York textile factory caught on fire with the owner trapping his female workers inside to prevent them from striking with other factory workers.   129 workers died in the fire.  The colors of the fabric they were working on were chosen as the symbol of the international women’s rights movement. Since 1908 women got voting rights in most countries, but unfortunately there are still textile factories in Bangladesh where women are trapped in unsafe buildings. The sad thing is that they are making clothes for women in the other part of the world who celebrate International Women Day by wearing pretty dresses.   The gender equality can’t be achieved as long as we raise our girls to become princesses with lady manners.

The progress is only real when the day-to-day language bias towards girls and women has changed. ‘Determined girls are not bossy, they have leadership skills’.  

On March 8th, 2019, Catalyst developed an app for correcting language bias, Try it out and see if your language needs to be corrected: https://www.catalyst.org/biascorrect/



‘Letting go to letting come’

Thomas first day at schoolLast week, it was my son’s first week at school. I waved goodbye hoping he will cry asking me to stay longer, but he didn’t. He was ready for it and actually looking forward to it  with excitement. 

I, on the other hand, wasn’t ready to let go. I was afraid because  my little baby boy entered into the big world of schedules and societal expectations.

For the past 4 years, every time I was awake at night because of him I would comfort myself with the thought  that he will grow up eventually. What I forgot was that when he grows up, he will also move on from the baby cuddles to the ‘I am a big boy now, mummy’ phase.

‘Steliana, letting go is  letting come’ someone in my coaching class told me earlier this year. I read about Otto Sharmer’s theory U and  ‘Presencing’ but I guess I didn’t really understand it until this last week.   As adults we find it difficult to let go of the old self and that stops us to see the new opportunities around the corner. This time the scary thing  was the idea of me suddenly becoming a mother of two school-age kids instead of a mother of toddlers. Some other times it is about letting go the old ways of doing things at my job or letting go a certain status. This week I learned an important lesson from my four-year old son who just moved on to the next phase of his life without complaints and drama.

 I am recounting the memories of a year with a lot of ups and downs. Perhaps some of you had the same because that’s what life is: unpredictable and surprising. 

Life is what happens to you, while you are busy making other plans. (J.Lennon)

Presencing Institute