Be Influential + Dr. Michelle Morkert

Be Influential.  This is the sixth and final of the six core GSD Factor attributes.  

Here’s a quick recap:

The GSD Factor life consists of six attributes: Be Confident, Be Inquisitive, Be Imaginative, Be Present, Be Resilient, and Be Influential.  

What does it mean when we say, “Be Influential? The definition that we have framed around this is:

“The capability to lead by example as an actionable leader and connecting with those around you; you look to the future, bring along the next generation alongside you and mentor them so they can stand on your shoulders.”

Dr. Michelle Morkert is a Certified Professional Women’s Leadership Coach with a Ph.D. in gender studies; she is a professor and researcher with worldwide experience, and her motto is “To coach trailblazing women leaders who want to show up, stand up, and speak up.”  She embodies this GSD Factor attribute, and I’m thrilled she is joining this conversation.

To me, being a leader is about knowing when to listen and when to act. It’s about showing up. GSD Factor leaders are present, authentic leaders. They are leaders because they know when they need to lead, when to follow, when to push, and when to support.

Dr. Michelle, what does being an influential leader mean to you?

An influential woman leader remembers her “Why?”. She views her successes and failures as a collection of experiences and wisdom that supports her passion.  They are data points that inform her strategy, not judgments of her self-worth.  A visionary leader also knows that she stands on the shoulders of those who have gone before her and that she is the set of shoulders for the next generation.

Women are told from an early age that we have to work twice as hard (or more!) as our male counterparts to get half as far.  Influential leaders recognize black-belt level misogyny wielded against them as further evidence that we need more women in leadership.  Backlash is a sign that you’re doing the damn thing and that you are doing it well.

Being a woman in leadership means that somebody has fought the fight and has embraced the GSD Factor mindset. She has determined that failure is not an option. She has embodied the practice of failing quickly and trying again. She has embraced the life cycle of launch, pause, pivot, and relaunch. I think that when you see a woman in leadership you see someone that has had to overcome stereotypes on top of everyday obstacles, somebody that has to work a little harder. You see a woman who is the personification of resilience. She is a diamond that is breaking glass ceilings, but it has taken her countless attempts at hitting and cutting the glass.

From your years of research in gender studies, can you share your insights into women leaders?  What do you think holds us back?

I’ve seen several common traits among women leaders throughout my global research.  First, they know that courage can feel painful.  They are not strangers to fear, self-judgment, or public criticism.  It is often in moments of profound discomfort that they become the next version of themselves.   Influential women leaders don’t go it alone.  So often we look at successful women and think that they have it all together or that they don’t need support when, in fact, they build intentional, close-knit relationships with people who embrace their full humanity.  These key relationships are filled with honesty, trust, and lots of laughter.

The most profound lesson that I’ve learned from brave women leaders is that they commit to continually deepening their identity so that they can lead in their own way.  At some point in their career, they realize that they are no longer willing to contort themselves to fit into anyone else’s mold.  They play big by being themselves.

The biggest lessons that I’ve learned from being a leader is conviction and confidence in my decisions and my willingness to exhibit humility. When I make a decision, I do so unapologetically. When I say no, it’s a full sentence, and I do so without apology. However, I’m willing to acknowledge when I have made a mistake or something has gone awry. I’m a human, and therefore, not impervious to making mistakes. 

Through my experience, though, women leaders are not typically given the freedom to make mistakes; there is this expectation that they have to be perfect, or they lose their seat at the table.  

I struggled with perfectionism for most of my life until I realized that I was chasing an unattainable and undefined fantasy for a stamp of approval.  Perfectionism leads to overwork, exhaustion, and self-doubt.  It’s a cycle that prevents us from taking risks and becoming influential leaders.  The irony is that we will always fail to be perfect unless we define perfection as personal growth and excellence.  That’s a journey that I’m willing to take for the rest of my life.  

As you can imagine with the name of my book and company, I don’t mind using the word shit. I know I don’t fit the mold of what is expected of women leaders. My get shit done attitude and signs in my office give insight into my personality and the way I view life. Countless times I’ve encountered individuals, both men and women, who either love that I feel confident enough to use it, or they are appalled. If they can’t work with that, they probably can’t work with me. 

What’s your take on this mixed response or pre-judgement?

It’s the “There’s something about her.” concept.  You know the one.  I like her, BUT there’s something about her.  She seems qualified, BUT there’s something about her.  That something is that she’s a powerful woman.  Society still perpetuates expectations about what women leaders should and shouldn’t do, say, and wear.  It’s a trope to keep women small, quiet, and innocuous.  

Every single human on this planet who lives in a community has internalized the patriarchy.  It’s a global organizing system, and we breathe it in like air.  Sometimes seeing a confident leader like you who is getting shit done ruffles the feathers of the patriarchy’s operating system that we still carry around inside of us.  Trailblazers are not for everyone.  If they were, they wouldn’t be changing society.

In my experience as a woman, and in listening to other women, one of the hardest things for women, in business, especially, is believing that we are worthy to have it all. We are worthy. 

What do you say to the women who don’t believe they are worthy?  

I think that this is a common challenge for women because many of us learned that our worth is determined by someone or something outside ourselves.  It could be our appearance, credentials, adherence to a specific gender role or work ethic that requires exhaustion to earn a break.   Often those people whose approval we require to feel worthy are strangers, and the rules were created centuries before we were born.  We can peel away these layers of tradition to create transformation by asking ourselves what we want, making decisions without apology, and learning to take risks.  Stepping into our self-worth is a journey of unlearning and learning.

Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America (TIAA), has recently partnered with a new brand ambassador Abby Wambach, US Women’s soccer hall-of-famer recognized for her US and international career performances and impact to soccer, who, in retirement, has turned author and activist. They have launched a new campaign bringing awareness to retirement inequality for women entering retirement including the research and statistics that show that even in 2022, women retire with 30% less income than men on average.

Now this is where TIAA embodies the GSD Factor attribute of Be Influential; they tie this inequity to how they intend to make an impact on future generations: “There are some things you don’t just do for you. You do them for the ones who come after you. Together, we can retire inequality for good.” Yes to this! They are using their voice to change the here, the now, and for the ones who come next.  

If there was one influential female leader, who is that for you, and what words of wisdom did they give you?

My doctoral advisor, Dr. Cynthia Enloe is one of the most influential women in my life.  She authored more than a dozen foundational texts in the field of feminist international relations and is an internationally renowned speaker and researcher.  She was one of the first scholars to take seriously the lived experiences of women in militarized conflicts – mothers, factory workers, politicians, sex workers, and soldiers.  Cynthia uses curiosity as a lens, and she believes that we are smarter when we ask feminist questions.  

I first met Cynthia Enloe in 2001 when I was a Women’s and Gender Studies Ph.D. student at Clark University in Worcester, MA.  Of all the lessons I learned from Cynthia, the one that I carry with me daily emerged not from a text or research, but from a conversation in a hotel restaurant during an International Studies Association convention.  Several of my colleagues and I met Cynthia for breakfast before presenting at the conference.  We felt nervous, and Cynthia knew it.  She looked each of us in the eye and said, “Be who you are.”  Those not-so-simple four words revolutionized my life. 

In the years since that conversation, I continue to learn from Cynthia.  She usually shows up wearing sneakers.  She centers feminist theory and women in the margins whether she was speaking at the United Nations, in an undergraduate seminar, or at a coffee shop with a colleague in Reykjavik.  A life-long learner, Cynthia listens first.  She uses her voice, and she changes the world.    

Be who you are, and be influential.