Stepping into leadership has been a progressive journey, says Anthea Swift.

Whether it’s enthusiastically changing a light bulb in her home or somewhat reluctantly shining her light as a leader in a workshop on a women’s weekend, Anthea Swift, the owner of HumanWorks, a corporate consultancy business that deals with leadership in the workplace, is a leading beacon of light in a fog of psychological uncertainty and patriarchal systems.

Do you consider yourself a leader?

I do, actually. But it’s not easy for me, accepting that I am a leader. The messages from my childhood around “don’t get too big for your boots” come up. I suppose part of getting older means that false modesty or reluctant leadership needs to fall away. So, I need to claim my ability to lead and bring about change for people. Reluctant leaders don’t enable other people.

My nickname at varsity among my lecturers was “the reluctant one”. I just slid under the radar – I wasn’t interested in anything. During adolescence there’s meant to be an individuation and a separation process, and I think this was hard for my parents. As a result of that I rebelled in a passive way and avoided my potential leadership.

Stepping into leadership has been a progressive journey for me through early days as a professional, starting my own business, being a mother, a wife, and being active in my community. And I imagine this journey never ends.

Tell us about HumanWorks

The bulk of the work that I do through HumanWorks is around conscious leadership – encouraging people to look at their behaviour as leaders. For me, leadership is essentially about behaviour, and behaviour is determined by one’s consciousness – the better you know yourself, the greater your congruence and authenticity and the more constructive your behaviour will be.

The work that I do revolves around emotional intelligence or psychological awareness – giving people the opportunities to learn and dialogue properly about what’s really going on in the workspace – the “politics”, “the dynamics”, the “experiences”.

I bring psychological awareness and emotional intelligence into the conversation – so that they can identify and recognise some of the deeper elements going on in their team – and through this give them concepts and tools that are useful.

This doesn’t get rid of interpersonal differences or political issues, but it does help to improve relationships, and ultimately, productivity.

A very simple example working with “I statements” is someone saying: “You made no sense at that meeting.” If that can be re-framed to “I didn’t fully understand what you said at that meeting”, its impact changes. It’s about taking ownership, and looking at how power, rank and status play out.

How have you grown as a leader?

As I’ve gotten older, and clearer about who I am, and more confident in my ability, I am more able to be confrontational – to stand up for what I believe in. But what I also bring, and what makes the confrontation more valuable, is that I have very little judgement around it. I have a lot of empathy for people. And compassion. I really like people.

So I have a real interest in what it is that makes people behave in a certain way. And it’s less about “what” they are doing, but “why”. What are the labels you grew up with, what are the stories you carry with you about how men or women should be? If you can work with the “why” and people’s belief structures, then to get someone to turn a “you statement” into an “I statement” is easy – because you’re working with their motivation.

I learn so much from the groups I work with – from the corporate work that I do to the Woman Within weekends.

Is leadership a burden?

Stepping into that position of leadership is a burden and a responsibility, because it’s the “tall poppy syndrome”. You end up dealing with a lot of people’s projections. I often feel very vulnerable, so it’s not a place that I’ve often sought out. I’m very aware of the risks. So I imagine that I’ll be working on how I work and who I am into my eighties. This work is ongoing.

For me, everyone can step into a position of leadership. I love the LeadSA campaign and that it’s about the fact that you can be a leader anywhere. You can step into a leadership position when you’re paying for your groceries. If the person in front of you treats the cashier unfairly, you can challenge that person, you can make eye contact with the cashier and smile, or you can say nothing.

What is your intention?

Is it to create positive change?

Leadership in the home?

It’s harder than anywhere else. I’m constantly evaluating the messages that I’m sending to my children about how women are, how men are, how parents are, and what healthy people do. And I would like my children to want to live in this country when they grow up, so I try to contribute to making our society a place where they would want to live.

Woman leadership in a man's world?

There’s a real struggle for women to step up and claim their power in a way that is inherently feminine. What a lot of women do is adopt the masculine way of being a leader, or being successful, or powerful. When all people claim their innate leadership, both feminine and masculine – the potential to be a leader that sits in all of us – that is when we are really powerful.

It’s not about copying other people, it’s about finding the “gold” inside you. If you can be clear about who you are and stand up and own your strengths and shine your light, then it’s not so hard to look at the parts of you that aren’t so “light”.

Our challenge is to find and develop more women leaders. There is a paucity of women role models because of the patriarchal system. We, as women, need to begin to look at ourselves as role models. You don’t have to be a 50-year-old woman in business to be a role model.

Tell us about Woman Within, the sister organisation of The Mankind Project

On the Woman Within workshop we encourage women to own who they are: their strengths, skills and capacities. And to be able and willing to ask for what it is that they need, whether it’s in their relationships at home or at work. And then learning that just because we ask for it, doesn’t mean that we are entitled to get it. When we can own what it is that we need and hope for, and not be ashamed of it, then we are much more able to talk about it and put it out there in a way that is much more acceptable to the other person.

It’s about looking at the messages we’ve received in society – from our parents, our teachers, our friends, and the media – and then challenging them. Because those messages become beliefs. And they often become limiting beliefs. I remember wanting to work with my dad on the car as a child, and my dad saying “ag, girls don’t understand cars”. And my belief then developed into “girls don’t get physics or mechanics” – “they don’t understand how things work”. But I know that I absolutely love putting plugs on lights…

l Justin Nurse is a freelance journalist and founder of Laugh It Off. To learn more about the work Anthea does visit: www.humanworks.co.za and wfa.org.za.