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BPW Galway Candle Lighting 2010







The country needs women to play a full and equal role in our national life. Leadership can be taught and learned. Some women are born or brought up with aptitudes than lend themselves naturally to leadership, while others are not. Women who don’t start off in life with these aptitudes can compensate for this deficiency by acquiring the necessary skills. In short, I believe that leadership is something open to almost anyone if they want to exercise it.

We find it easier, for instance, to talk about management than we do to talk about leadership – maybe because management has hard edges that we can readily grasp. Indeed, many people are tempted to confuse management and leadership, and present them as alternatives or synonyms for each other. This I certainly don’t believe is accurate. Management is one thing, leadership is something quite different and distinct.

So, what is leadership? I don’t have a neat definition to give, so let me approach the question in a circuitous way. Let me begin with a few apposite quotations, from a variety of sources both recent and traditional.


“Leadership is about defining the vision for a business or an organization and having the capacity to translate that vision into reality” is one definition.

This interpretation, it seems to me, goes to the heard of the matter: leadership involves two things – having a vision and being able to make it happen.


“Leadership occurs when one person induces others to work towards come predetermined goals”

This is yet another definition.

Son what is a leader like? There are six personal characteristics which can generally be attributed to successful leaders.


  1. Self-esteem

Having self-esteem does not equate with being an egomaniac though one can be forgiven for thinking that this is true in many cases. The essential factor is that to lead you must have a high sense of your own self-worth. You must be at ease with your place in the world, and confident of your ability to make a mark in that world. Obviously, from time to time, as a leader you will ask questions of yourself. What are you goals, your methods, and your motives? A leader is someone who finds answers to those questions and not someone who is riddled by self-doubt.


  1. The need to achieve.

This need is associated with leaders who constantly seek to perform at their best.

“He who stops being better, stops being good”

Individuals who seek to achieve tend to be open to feedback, are goal-oriented, seek to be unique, and strive for accomplishments based on their own efforts – all characteristics that are important for effective leadership. The key is that these individuals believe they will succeed.


3. Screen for opportunity.


Leaders are bombarded with a plethora of information coming at them from all sides, some relevant more irrelevant, some true more untrue. Inherent in the ability to lead is the capacity to separate the useful from the useless, and to focus only on what is useful in helping to achieve one’s goals. This characteristic is often described as ‘single-mindedness’, which I believe states the case too narrowly. The point is not that the leader focuses on a single thing, but that the leader focuses only on that which is useful.


  1. High internal locus of control.


When someone perceives events as outside their own control, they have an external locus of control. They may put it down to fate of luck. They may blame their boss, their enemies or the system. They see the world as a place where things happen to them, rather than a place in which they make things happen. Another way of describing this characteristic is to call it the ‘can do’ factor.


  1. Accomplishment of one’s goals.


Above and beyond all that, you must have the energy to carry our goals, to see them through day in day out, in the face of every obstacle that stands in your way. Leaders may be dreamers, or thinkers, but they are first and foremost doers. They realise that they will be judged, and they will judge themselves, on what they achieve.


  1. Thinking strategically


In our daily lives, may of us spend time focusing on what comes next – the immediate problem or challenge that confronts us. We spend far less time thinking seriously about what comes after what comes next and thinking about how “what comes after what comes next’ will be affected by what we do about ‘what comes next’.


Apart from these attributes a leader also needs to be able to listen actively. This goes a great deal further than merely reacting to the innumerable stimuli that we encounter each day. ‘Listening actively’ means seeking out information that will be of use. And using what is learned to develop and refine both goals and the actions taken to accomplish those goals.  Active listening is not something that comes naturally to us- but again, it is a skill that can be learned.

The leader needs to be able to communicate clearly and effectively. People are rarely ready to be led blindly and that is a very good thing. It is up to the leader to communicate to others the personal vision that drives him or her. Where this skill comes in is, in getting across this message clearly in terms that will be meaningful to the audience and not only meaningful but attractive as well.

A very important skill lies in understanding the importance of giving example. No leader has ever succeeded with the motto ‘do as I say not as I do’. That approach persuades nobody, especially in this somewhat cynical age. There are two aspects to this need to lead by showing the way, not just by telling people about it.

The skill involved here is knowing the supreme importance of living out what you say.

Finally a leader must be able to inspire respect.

However clearly and persuasively you communicate your goals, however much you lead through example, there is still a gap to be bridged before people will follow you as a leader. Cold logic alone will not inspire people to follow a leader. There is also an emotional aspect which all leaders are aware of, try to develop their skills in maximising.

Apart altogether from the logical reasons that might apply, people follow others because they trust them. What is important about trust and respect is that they cannot be bought. They can be earned rather than commanded and this will be done the hard way. Sensitivity is important in earning people’s respect and from that sensitivity comes a determination to act in a manner that nurtures trust.

For women the question of leadership development is an important issue. Women need to be in leadership positions in our society if the objectives of equal status and equal opportunity for women are to be achieved. It is important to women to achieve a reasonable balance between women and men in society. This means leadership in all walks of life. It means positions of leadership in business, government, administration, the civil service , the professions in various industries and especially in politics. I say especially politics because all forces for change in society eventually end up being discussed, approved (or not), financed and implemented in the political forum. This reality is something every woman must get hold of and think about if a reasonable between men and women in society is ever to be achieved.

For example women may head up businesses, public services, organisations, institutions, colleges, schools, universities, but decisions relating to strategic policy in all spheres of national life are made in Dail Eireann. 

Women account for only 13% of the national representation in the Dail and Senate. It is astonishing that this figure is so low considering how far we have gone in raising the status of women generally.

President Many McAleese, in the foreword to the book ’Women in Parliament ‘ lauds the blossoming of women’s talents in every sphere of Irish life, but points to the disappointing low participation rates of women in political life. She goes on to argue :

“We must do our utmost to change that …because Irish society as a whole will otherwise be the poorer for it. We need the insights and the experiences of women to inform our policy formation and decision making processes. And we need to understand and seek to change the factors which discourage women from entering and remaining in politics”. It must be remembered that she was speaking from a wealth of political experience, having been unsuccessful when she contested a general election for Fianna Fail in 1992, and of course becoming President of Ireland in 1997.

Similar sentiments were expressed by the former President Mary Robinson, a senator for 16 years, and also an unsuccessful Dail candidate. She holds strong views on how the dearth of women in Parliament impacts negatively on all Irish citizens.Speaking as the UN High Commissioner for Human rights she saw that a top priority should be “to achieve the abolition of every vestige or discrimination against women and to bring about true equality. An essential component is to increase the participation of women in all areas of decision making in public life. There is a big deficit to make up before it can be said that women are adequately represented at political level”.

Why is it that so few women get elected to Dail Eireann? Ostensibly, it is because very few get selected as candidates for election by the different political parties. We must ask why are they not selected?

I strongly believe that Irish women need to develop kills for leadership in every social context, building up to the point where it results in political leadership and consequently in leadership in the decision making in government that effects the day to day performance of our society.


The way forward is clear. What is needed is the acquisition of the appropriate skills and a lot of very hard work. It is not an easy road, but it is a road that is certainly well worth travelling.







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