Executive Insider

Kicking Ass in a Corset: What Jane Austen teaches us about cultivating women leaders in a post-COVID world

Andrea Kayne

What can organizational leaders learn from an unemployed, unmarried woman who lived more than two hundred years ago? As it turns out, a great deal. Jane Austen offers organizational leaders six tools for cultivating a post pandemic culture that develops, inspires, and sustains women leaders no matter what  constraint they face whether COVID or otherwise.

These tools include the following:

(1) Acknowledging that Personal Meaning Matters: Given all of the tumult during the last few years, it is essential to acknowledge that personal meaning to women matters.

We need to create work experiences that comport with personal values, purpose, and mission.  Encouraging women leaders to distinguish between their universal truths and others’ universal truths in order to identify their purpose, values, and meaning to create a personalized rubric of success is critical. In the spirit of Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice, when we know our values going in, we create a culture where employees will also feel comfortable being who they are and knowing what they stand for. We want people who bring their whole selves to work and don’t just adapt to what others think or want to hear. Living inspired by Elizabeth requires completing our own circuit so that we source our power from within before, during, and after any external condition. We know we are channeling Elizabeth when we value ourselves and our employees with steadfast constancy, irrespective of anything we achieve or don’t achieve in the outside world.

(2) Problem-Solving Resiliency in Crisis and Beyond: Cultivate, facilitate, and celebrate women’s problem-solving resiliency for the post pandemic world and beyond.

Whether we liked it or not, the pandemic encouraged, fostered, and forced many of us to tap into a resiliency that we did not know we had. This has been especially true for overburdened working mothers. We had to accept difficult realities and be creative problem solvers on the home front and the work front.  Elinor Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility, teaches us to respond to external tumult and adverse change with an internal calm, acceptance, and problem-solving resilience rather than as the passive victim of external circumstance and self-pity. Leaders should foster, support, and reward this resilience by accepting setbacks and mistakes as opportunities for growth and creating a workplace where employees are solution-oriented. We work with organizations and their employees to view themselves in the situation rather than of the situation so that they can witness from a place of objectivity, beyond emotion. The internally referenced leader can zoom out to view their circumstances and emotions from a safe distance rather than overly identify and risk being consumed.

(3) Owning and Claiming Hard Work: Help women own, claim, and disseminate their hard work, merit, and accomplishments.

It’s been a time when women have performed surprisingly well under extraordinary pressure. Many women in the workplace, however, have a harder time owning and claiming their accomplishments the way their male peers do. It is very helpful if organizations help women claim their hard work and accomplishments. Like Anne Elliot from Persuasion, choose and create paradigms based on internal worthiness, hard work, and merit over external constructs that bestow the shortcuts of privilege, entitlement, and membership in the “right” club. The internally referenced leader prefers hard work and merit over privilege and entitlement.Your workplace should reflect the same. Help people claim and celebrate hard work with objective criteria.

(4) The Importance of Saying the Emperor Has No Clothes. Help women speak truth to power by providing multiple pathways to hear their constructive feedback without fear of retaliation.

Organizations that provide pathways for women to provide constructive feedback without concern about reprisal not only have more open and trusting cultures but also are able to address issues before they implode and cause irreparable harm. Like Fanny Price of Mansfield Park, it’s important to insist on cultures where employees can faithfully follow their internal moral compasses and normative principles. It’s critical to create a culture where people can speak truth to power and truly express themselves. We should reward this behavior and encourage women to find and use their voices. The internally referenced leader strives to have this broader mission for the good of the organization and the good of society by acting on those high moral values in all aspects of her life.

(5) Passion and Dreaming for Creativity and Balance.  Nurture passion and dreaming of women employees for creativity, new ideas and rest and renewal for balance.

Whether it is Zoom fatigue or an overload of negative news, the pandemic has taught us that we need balance in our lives. This is especially true for women who have the lion’s share of home responsibility. Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey teaches us that for productivity and balance we need to give people space and time for rest and renewal.  Time for rest and renewal is also essential for creativity. It’s important to create work cultures that protect and retain internal childlike dreaming, wonder, curiosity, passion, and hope—especially in an external world that can be discouraging, disillusioning, and filled with despair. Catherine’s right-brain wisdom is essential for internally referenced leaders. In addition to being restorative, taking time for rest and renewal can lead to the best ideas and creativity. Maintaining a sense of childlike wonder, openness, and honesty are traits that are absolutely needed in the adult workplace. When people are in flow, they are at their happiest and most engaged, so completely absorbed in the task at hand that they almost become one with it.

(6) Modeling Humility and Growth. Model a growth mindset for everyone in your organization so that everyone can reflect and learn and create a space of continuous growth.

Like Emma Woodhouse from Emma, constantly be willing to learn from an internal place of openness and humility rather than from a stance of perfection and superiority. Through Emma we learn that humility needs to be an ethic in an organization. We’re always learning, growing, reflecting, and trying to get better. One of the most important attributes for any internally referenced leader is a continuous self-awareness of her weak spots as well as the areas in herself and her organization that are in need of improvement.

Jane Austen’s heroines are inspiring and useful because they provide a way of finding one’s power and agency under great constraint and in trying times whether the pandemic or otherwise. These principles of internally referenced leadership are lessons from the pandemic that can work together to help create leaders and organizations who truly operate from the inside out.


Written by Andrea Kayne.

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Andrea Kayne
Andrea Kayne, author of KICKING ASS IN A CORSET, serves as director of the doctoral program in educational leadership and is associate professor at DePaul University. She has taught, written, and consulted in the areas of empowered leadership, feminist leadership, emotionally intelligent leadership, and internally referenced leadership. Her new courses, based on internally referenced leadership, are offered in partnership with DePaul University.

Andrea Kayne received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Vassar College, her Masters of Education degree from Harvard Graduate School of Education, and her Juris Doctorate degree from the University of Pennsylvania. She lives in Oak Park, Illinois.

Author:
Kicking Ass in a Corset: Jane Austen’s 6 Principles for Living and Leading from the Inside Out.


Andrea Kayne is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow her on LinkedIn. For more information, visit the author’s website.