Commentary: Reprogramming ideas about leadership, success

Not long ago, I was watching an episode of a legal drama TV series and the main protagonist – a cocky New York City corporate lawyer – said something that stuck with me. At the climax of a crucial scene, he stared at his associate and said:

“That’s the difference between you and me. You want to lose small. I wanna win big.”

As you might assume, the protagonist was an ‘attractive white male in an expensive suit that exuded arrogance.’ After this scene, I stopped the show and thought to myself: Are these the qualities of a leader?

Ever since, I have been intrigued by the concept of leadership, particularly its relationship to gender and race.

As a third-year undergraduate student in the Department of Computer Science, I understand what it feels like to be a minority trying to succeed against a majority-led field. In my case, my gender makes me a minority. Computer science is a male-dominated discipline. Consequently, men are more likely to succeed. Knowing this, many of my family members and peers have questioned my decision to pursue this field. But when faced with these kinds of questions, I reply: Why shouldn’t I take the opportunity to defy the odds?

Truth is, I didn’t become a computer programmer to challenge society or to prove anyone wrong – I followed my passion. I am not intimidated by biases, but as I progress within my chosen field, they are becoming harder to ignore.

This past winter, a mentor recommended I attend a public lecture by Jessica Grahn, a Psychology professor in the Brain and Mind Institute. I attended not only because the title – What Do Leaders Look Like? Combating Myths, Bias, and Anxiety on the Path to Success – piqued my interest but also because the presenter was a woman talking about leadership, thus, giving me an alternative to the typical male-centred perspective.

Grahn began her lecture by giving two different versions of her professional journey.

The first was a linear, well-formulated narrative in which she knew exactly what to do at every step of her career and had planned her entire future from the start. Her second version – the true version – contained many twists and turns, was filled with moments of uncertainty and involved constant rapid decision-making based on the uneven landscape ahead.

The first version, she noted, is what comes to mind when one thinks about the makings of a leader – a series of successes straight out of the gate. This is partly because successful people tend to not broadcast their flaws or the flukes that got them to where they are. But Grahn stressed such ideas fuel biases and stereotypes.

The second story, she said, showed uncertainty and a lack of direction, but those are not necessarily the enemies of great leaders and, in fact, are often crucial steps on their journey to greatness. There is no denying, however, that leaders are hard workers and a have a penchant for seeking opportunity.

I’ve been led to believe leaders know what they want in life and that one mistake can jeopardize the path to success. However, like with Grahn, my own personal experiences have proved this untrue. Throughout my undergraduate career, I have contemplated different career options; exploring these alternative paths has helped me discover my passions. Indeed, my ultimate goal is to do well in a field I enjoy and to overcome obstacles by learning from my mistakes.

A leader should not have a label. Instead, they are individuals who are passionate about the work they do and driven to achieve the best results in any given situation. To overcome biases and stereotypes associated with leadership, it is necessary for everyone to take it upon herself or himself to bring about change. Biases, myths and stereotypes will stop you from achieving your goals only if you believe they will.

With respect to women in computer science, it is little known the person thought to be the first computer programmer was a woman named Ada Lovelace, a mathematician who introduced many concepts in computing and was a leader in the field during the 1800s. Sometimes, all it takes is a little perspective to change your views on leadership.

It is perfectly acceptable to refuse to build your success story based on the rules set by society.

Neeraja Murali Dharan, a third-year undergraduate Science student specializing in Bioinformatics, is an alumna of the Ontario Baden-Wurttemberg Summer Research Program and, through the Computer Science co-op program at Western, is currently working as a software developer intern at IBM Markham. This essay was the product of a science-writing internship with Biology professor David Smith.