Skip to main contentA logo with &quat;the muse&quat; in dark blue text.
Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

Yes, Being a Leader is Scary. Here's Why You Should Go for it Anyway

When I was 31 years old and working as a senior editor for a national Sunday newspaper supplement, the editor-in-chief, Art Cooper, took me aside one day and said he wanted to begin grooming me to eventually become an editor-in-chief myself.

Though I was incredibly appreciative of Art’s mentoring, deep down the thought of becoming top dog one day held little appeal. Leadership, and all the responsibility it entailed, scared the hell out of me. But I also imagined that any kind of leadership position would interfere with other goals I had in life, like traveling to far-flung places. Power seemed to promise nothing but constraint.

Last week, like a muscle memory, those early feelings I had about professional power resurfaced when I saw the results of research conducted by a team of women at Harvard. Having surveyed a diverse sample of more than 4,000 people, they found that “while women and men believe they are equally able to attain high-level leadership positions, men want that power more than women do.” Women, they found, perceive professional power as less desirable than men do.

The researchers—Francesca Gino, a recently tenured professor in the Negotiations, Organizations and Markets unit at Harvard Business School, Alison Wood Brooks, an assistant professor of in the NOM unit, and Caroline Wilmuth, who is pursuing a doctorate in organizational behavior at Harvard—offered a possible explanation: “Women have more goals and want to pursue them.”

I relate to the women in the survey who find professional power off-putting because I once felt the same way. Once. Because I ended up changing my mind on the subject—or rather I was fortunate enough to have my mind changed for me.

It happened soon after Art set up his editor-in-chief boot camp. The top job at GQ opened up and Art went after with all the alpha male gusto he could muster (and ended up creating a brilliant magazine brand). Meanwhile, management informed me that I would now be running the Sunday supplement while a search was conducted for a replacement. And I would also be a candidate for the job.

The news made me cringe. I didn’t want to run the show. Plus, it meant that I would have to cancel a glorious trip to the Artic that I’d managed to finagle for myself (tough to run a weekly magazine while sailing on an ice freighter along the coast of Greenland).

Well, a funny thing happened as I resisted this new professional power—I discovered I absolutely loved it. Running the show, signing off on all the content myself, having the buck stop with me—I’d never been happier at work.

Power, as it turned out, looked and felt a lot different from the inside out than it did from outside in. It was exhilarating, rewarding, fun, and, rather than restricting, wonderfully freeing. I called the shots.

Here’s what I’d say to any woman who finds the thought of professional power less than appealing. Just try it. Yes, from where you’re standing now it may seem terrifying or just plain unappealing or even limiting, but once you get it taste of it, there’s a more than good chance you’ll see how sweet it is. And if it doesn’t suit you or you feel it undermines your other goals, you can always walk away.

Sure, it’s true that overall women are presented with fewer opportunities in the workplace than men are, as this study points out, but many women simply resist opportunity because they’re intimidated by the idea of moving up past middle management.

My initial taste of professional power lasted only three months. They brought in a new editor and I left about six months later, now determined that one day I’d be the leader again. The next time it didn’t land in my lap. I had to go after it.

Making a grab for power (leaning in and then some) is the part where women often hesitate. Even if we find power attractive, we’re afraid we don’t have all that’s required. We need to take a page from men, who know you don’t have to have all the qualifications in order to raise your hand. As an executive coach friend of mine says, “It’s not a matter of whether you can do it, it’s whether you can learn it.”

Yes, some of big job opportunities open up when your life is at its craziest—when you’ve just had a second child, for example. But here’s a little secret about being the boss. Now you get to do things your way. And the more women step up and grab a little power, the more matters will improve for women in the workplace in terms of issues like flexibility.

Seventeen years ago, when I was the editor-in-chief of Redbook, my boss called me into her office one Sunday and offered me the position of editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan. Though the idea of running Cosmo thrilled me, I had some real concerns. I hadn’t really looked at the magazine in years, and I seemed like a bad fit for a magazine geared to Gen X, and soon Gen Y. Plus, my kids were only five and eight years old and I worried that the job would really infringe on my time with them. I’d heard plenty of rumors about the insane hours people worked at the magazine under the outgoing editor and about the surprise meetings that were often held at night.

But I reminded myself of what I already knew, that as I leader I could learn what I needed and fix things my way. On day one I hired an expert on Gen X and Gen Y to totally school me on the subject, and I poured over every single email that had come in from a readers during the past two years. I suddenly had a grasp of who the reader was and what she yearned for.

As for those crazy hours, they turned out, after inspection, to be simply the result of bad time management. It didn’t have to be done that way. Sanity could rule.

Okay, admittedly I was lucky. I worked for a terrific company with terrific bosses who let me do my thing. But those good companies are out there. Or, start your own.

Professional power does involve tradeoffs and sacrifices. But the thrill that comes from ownership and autonomy, of creating something according to your own vision, offers fabulous rewards that can make the trade worthwhile. And the financial benefits of power are hard to knock. I never got another crack at the Arctic Circle, but a trip to Antarctica compensated nicely.

So just try it. Instead of keeping your hand in your lap, raise it and discover the pure, glorious thrill and endless rewards of being in charge.

Photo of woman in city courtesy of Shutterstock.