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Rona Ambrose on sexism, unconscious bias, and building resilient leadership

  • Communications
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  • Oct 26, 2020
Rona Ambrose on sexism, unconscious bias, and building resilient leadership

“Women in business and politics are always fighting against the bias that some people believe that they truly can’t be leaders simply because they are women.”

According to The Honourable Rona Ambrose, she has spent a lot of her time trying to dismantle this bias and encouraging male allyship, while explaining to women how and why they are worthy of leadership. Ambrose, the former leader of Canada’s Official Opposition in the House of Commons and current deputy Chairwoman at TD Securities spoke to HBA1 students about developing confident and resilient leaders in her keynote address at this year’s Thomas d’Aquino Lecture on Leadership.   

Delivering her talk from the National Music Centre in Calgary, Ambrose wove stories of resilience, self-doubt and struggle as she progressed to highest political ranks in largely male-dominated circles.

Known as a passionate advocate for women and girls, she encouraged Ivey’s female students “to take risks, and if you need to be, be brave. I know you have what it takes. I know that you are worthy. And when you feel that self-doubt creeping in, just ask yourself, ‘what’s the worst thing that can happen?’”

Here are the five key leadership themes and messages Ambrose asked all students to reflect upon:

Honour your passion

“I use my voice every chance I have to fight for women who can’t fight for themselves. That’s my passion. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t in my mandate when I was in politics, or in my job title today. My passion has always been present in every part of my life… When you think of the things that get your blood coursing and motivate you to take risks that you never imagined you would, find ways to incorporate those into your daily life.”

Take risks

“If you don’t takes risks you will never fail, but you will also never succeed. And failure is one of the most wonderful things that can happen to you. You learn a lot about yourself. You learn that you are much stronger than you ever imagined. You learn how to build yourself back up, you learn humility, the perspectives of others, and you become resilient.”

Vulnerability is a strength

“I’m a big believer in allowing people to see your vulnerabilities. To be a leader that isn’t afraid to ask for help, isn’t afraid to show emotion and isn’t afraid to laugh at yourself. At some point in my career I realized that suppressing my emotions almost meant suppressing myself. I used to avoid talking about certain things, or exposing myself to certain situations because it might make me emotional, and that of course wasn’t a quality of a strong leader. But that also meant not sharing your authentic self. I stopped avoiding those situations, and while they still might make me emotional, they also connect my honest experience with so many others.”

Build allyship

“When you are trying to build consensus you have to ask yourself a simple question: why? Why is your idea a good one? Why are you trying to achieve this particular goal? And then you teach people the why, with discussion and be open to challenge. By creating a collaborative environment that empowers others to buy into your goals, your team will naturally become more engaged and more involved.”

Beat the bias, don’t be a blocker

“We need to be aware of the biases we have so that they don’t affect somebody’s opportunity to advance. We don’t want to be a blocker. We want to be a facilitator… it’s important that we become more self-aware so we can be better leaders of women and men. Unconscious bias manifests itself in different ways. Not considering a woman colleague to take on a challenge. Not considering a woman for a promotion because you think she has too many personal commitments with family before you’ve even had the conversation with her about what her plan is to balance those commitments… The majority of men we work with and have in our lives are respectful, believe women are equal and work well with women. But we need you to be more than “good guys” right now, we need you to be champions [for women]… So to the men out there, we need you to ask yourselves some uncomfortable questions. Are there beliefs, values and experiences that you might have that are affecting your abilities to see women as leaders?” 

The Lecture on Leadership was established in 2006 to salute Thomas d’Aquino’s outstanding contributions to national and international business, public policy and the voluntary sector. It is supported by the Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership.