Overcoming fear is essential to effective leadership

It’s easy to accept things as they are. There is a certain level of comfort in being resigned to the fact that things cannot be changed — or at least, that they cannot be changed easily. But to be successful in business leadership, overcoming that fear is a necessity.

That’s especially true if you’re a woman.

It’s 2017, and it remains far too common to look at boards of directors and see a prevailing lack of diversity. White men continue to dominate these high perches of power and influence. There are many reasons for this, including pervasive, outdated attitudes toward women in the workplace.

Some exceptional women break through, squeezing past longstanding institutional barriers. There is an old quote from Charlotte Whitton, the former mayor of Ottawa and the first woman mayor of a major Canadian city.

“Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily this is not difficult,” Whitton said.

It may not be difficult in theory. In practice, that may be another story. Throughout my career, I’ve discovered that overcoming my fears about challenging the status quo has been a key to the success I’ve achieved.

But working fearlessly isn’t easy. I moved to Cleveland more than 10 years ago to be the president and CEO of YWCA Greater Cleveland. I seized the opportunity after serving as executive vice president with the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Dallas. Before that, my experience was in the for-profit world, first as a journalist and non-fiction author, then in the business sector with a large company in Minneapolis.

I’ve made a number of major transitions throughout my career, and each has come with uncertainty. There has been fear to overcome. Through it all, there have been lessons learned that have helped me become successful and guide my philosophy when it comes to leadership.

One of the most important is to remain true and honest with yourself. Remaining constantly attuned to your own strengths, weaknesses and professional desires is critically important in leadership. Doing so allows you to thrive where you are strong, while empowering and lifting up others to achieve organizational goals.

Another is to remain mission-focused — knowing why you’re working every day. In the nonprofit world, it’s knowing why you’re raising money every day, why you want to achieve positive outcomes.

My mission at YWCA Greater Cleveland is to raise up women leaders, providing them with tools and support, to help them grow and succeed in their chosen paths. We work toward racial justice. It is immensely satisfying work, and I try to instill the lessons I’ve learned in every woman who walks through our doors.

Working fearlessly has helped me get here. It can help women across all social strata. And it’s my belief that it’s essential to changing the world.

Margaret Mitchell is president and CEO at YWCA Greater Cleveland