Reprogramming our ideas about leadership and success

Neeraja Murali DharanNot long ago, I was watching an episode of a legal drama TV series and the main protagonist, a cocky New York City corporate lawyer, said something that stuck with me. At the climax of a crucial scene, he stared at his associate and said, “That’s the difference between you and me. You want to lose small. I wanna win big”. As you might assume, the protagonist was an attractive white male in an expensive suit that exuded arrogance. After this scene I stopped the show and thought to myself: are these the qualities of a leader? Ever since, I have been intrigued by the concept of leadership, particularly its relationship to gender and race.

As a third-year undergraduate student in the Department of Computer Science at Western University, I understand what it feels like to be a minority trying to succeed against a majority-led field. In my case, it is my gender that makes me a minority. Computer science is a male-dominated discipline. Consequently, men are more likely to succeed in computer science. Knowing this, many of my family members and peers have questioned my decision to pursue this field.

When faced with these kinds of questions, I reply: Why I shouldn’t I take the opportunity to defy the odds? But the truth is that I didn’t become a computer programmer to challenge society or to prove anyone wrong – I simply followed my passion. I am not intimidated by biases, but as I progress within my chosen field, they are becoming harder and harder to ignore.

This past winter, one of my mentors recommended that I attend a public university lecture on leadership by Dr. Jessica Grahn, an associate professor from the Brain and Mind Institute in the Psychology Department at Western. The talk was titled “What Do Leaders Look Like? Combating Myths, Bias, and Anxiety on the Path to Success”. I decided to attend the lecture not only because the title piqued my interest but also because the presenter was a woman talking about leadership, thus, giving me something I could relate to and an alternative to the typical male-centred perspective. Ultimately, I was hoping that I could overcome some of the biases that I face in my own work.

One of the most memorable parts about Dr. Grahn’s talk was the way she introduced herself. She began by giving two different versions of her professional journey. The first was a linear and well-formulated narrative in which she knew exactly what to do at every step of her career and had planned her entire future from the start. Her second version, which was the true version, contained many twists and turns, was filled with moments of uncertainty, and involved constant rapid decision-making based on the uneven landscape ahead. She noted that the first version is what typically comes to mind when one thinks about the makings of a leader — a constant series of successes straight out of the gate. This is partly because successful people tend to not broadcast their flaws or the flukes that got them to where they are. Dr. Grahn stressed that such ideas could fuel biases and stereotypes. The second story, on the other hand, showed that uncertainty and a lack of direction are not necessarily the enemies of great leaders and in fact are often crucial steps on their journey to greatness. There is no denying, however, that leaders are hard workers and a have penchant for seeking opportunity.

This early part of the talk resonated with me. As a student, I’ve always been led to believe that leaders know what they want in life and that one mistake can jeopardize the path to success. However, like with Dr. Grahn, my own personal experiences have proved this to be untrue. Throughout my undergraduate career, I have contemplated different career options. Although I was unsure in the beginning, exploring alternative paths has helped me to narrow down potential career paths and discover my passions. This was a risk worth taking and will hopefully ensure success in the future. Indeed, my ultimate goal is to do well in a field that I enjoy and to overcome obstacles by learning from my mistakes.

Another concept that Dr. Grahn talked about was to resist the temptation to adhere to concepts of leadership as illustrated by media. You do not have to be intimidated by the fact that many leaders are white males in suits and neither do you have to accept that myth. In fact, the goal should be to strive towards challenging and changing this perception within society. A leader should not have a label. Instead, they are individuals who are passionate about the work they do and are driven to achieve the best results in any given situation. To overcome biases and stereotypes associated with leadership, it is necessary for everyone to take it upon herself or himself to bring about change. As articulated best by Mahatma Gandhi, “Be the change you want to see in the world”.

After listening to Dr. Grahn speak, I felt empowered and, more importantly, I felt that her message was worth sharing. Biases, myths, and stereotypes will stop you from achieving your goals only if you believe that they will. With respect to women in computer science: it is little known that the person thought to be the first computer programmer was a woman named Ada Lovelace, a mathematician who introduced many concepts in computing and was a leader in the field during the 1800s. Sometimes, all it takes is a little perspective to change your views on leadership, and it is perfectly acceptable to not build your success story based on the rules set by society.

Neeraja Murali Dharan is a third-year undergraduate science student specializing in bioinformatics at Western University. She is an alumna of the Ontario Baden-Wurttemberg Summer Research Program and, through the computer science coop program at Western, is currently working as a software developer intern at IBM Markham. This essay is the product of a science-writing internship with Prof. David Smith in Biology.