Nayela Mulla, Head – Human Resources, InterMiles

Nayela has over 13-years of specialized experience in Human Resources, including Business Partnering, Performance Management, Employee Engagement, People Development, Transition Management & Talent Acquisition. She has been at the forefront of driving organizational change at start-ups, as well as online and travel businesses, for over a decade. She has been leading the Human Resource vertical at InterMiles, an award-winning loyalty and rewards programme, for close to 4 years now.


Advancing to a leadership position comes after years of toiling hard and proving your irreplaceable worth over and over again. This holds in the case of women leaders especially in a patriarchal society, as the challenges they face, tend to be more severe than that of their male counterparts. A recent study by Credit Suisse Research Institute (CSRI) reveals that despite a concerted effort at India Inc. for improving gender diversity, the country has the third-lowest rank in the Asia Pacific concerning female chief executive officer (CEO) representation at 2%, as well as the second-lowest rank for female chief financial officer (CFO) representation at 1%. As a result, one of the biggest challenges that women as leaders face is the lack of female role models.

A Harvard Business Review (HBR) article titled How Women Manage the Gendered Norms of Leadership by Wei Zheng, Ronit Kark and Alyson Meister point out, women leaders are caught between the need to keep up with traditional expectations of being gentle as a woman, and the need to be tough and competent, which is the requirement of a leader. Therefore, when a woman leader feels compelled to adopt the stereotypically control-and-command style of leadership endorsed by most organizations, it often creates what is known as the ‘imposter syndrome’ since this does not match the woman’s inherent style, which leans more towards collaboration, listening and building relationships.  

In this article, I would like to share a few learnings for women leaders to harness to their advantage. 

Popularity does not define good leadership

Often aspiring leaders, especially women, are conditioned to believe that popularity is vital to successfully lead. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, following physiological and safety needs, humans require interpersonal belonging in terms of affiliation, acceptance, and affection. Therefore, the need to be liked by all is probably an evolutionary instinct. While guiding a team, a leader needs to make decisions that benefit the entire organization even if many employees are not aligned to that decision. While it is good to consider everyone’s opinions, you cannot possibly please everyone. A good leader takes a decision that they believe and know to be the best for everyone as opposed to a decision that everyone is “aligned” to. A very significant part of leadership is realizing when to decide within your authority if you are confident that it is the right one, even if you are unable to convince others about it. 

The only woman in the boardroom? Use it to your advantage  

It can be challenging to walk into a boardroom full of men, especially if you have faced constant sexism in the past and are unsure about how these men view you. While in many organizations in the corporate world, women in leadership positions are few, it is also an opportunity to stand out from the herd. If being a woman leader is rare in your organization, you have the opportunity to catch people’s attention and change common perceptions, delighting them with your work, which is something many of your male counterparts may find hard to do. 

Stereotyping could be looked at as an opportunity to transform belief-systems

While women are made to bear the brunt of being subject to stereotypes, this also allows them to rubbish such common perceptions. A successful strong leader at work, can also be a wife and/or a mother and it takes only one person to establish this fact in an organization and to be made an example of.  Being a woman leader, therefore, is an opportunity to set an example for many who still come with a regressive outlook on leadership roles when it comes to women. 

A leader doesn’t have to know everything; she just needs to know how to get everything done 

Questions open the mind to knowledge. This continues to hold at work as well. Very often women tend to find their confidence shake when they do not know something that they believe that they should have. For instance, a woman who may not be savvy with using presentation creation tools and software may find it hard to admit so while working on an important presentation with her colleagues. But the best thing to do in such a situation is to find someone who possesses the technical know-how and direct them to provide you with what you are looking for. Instead of being intimidated by what you don’t know, you should use this to your advantage to create a strong team culture of supporting one another. 

I would like to end this piece by reiterating that every woman leader must always stay true to creating value in whatever position she holds. If you aren’t afraid of hard times, obstacles become utterly unimportant, and criticism becomes a blueprint to succeed.  The one thing that shines for a woman who refuses to give up is her inspirational journey which becomes a story for all aspirational leaders of the future. 

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