As France’s Minister for National Education, Higher Education and Research, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem has spearheaded major reforms to the countries education system. She explains how she uses her position of leadership to empower others.
Leaders League.Are there sub-genres of leadership: does such a thing as female leadership exist?
Najat Vallaud-Belkacem. I don’t believe in skills or qualities that are uniquely feminine. These are ways of behaving that we acquire through education, they are not natural or spontaneous skills. This is why those in the government must focus on education, academic orientation, and the mix of trades and vocations. We must develop in our girls and in our boys many different appetites, skills and ambitions. The reforms to the national education system, higher education, and academic orientation have brought these imperatives to the fore.
What essential ingredients of leadership don’t get enough exposure?
Cultural barriers and the phenomena of female self-censorship at work and in managing their careers really do exist. Several studies have shown that differences of behavior at work and in negotiation situations go some way to explaining the persistent professional and remunerative inequalities between men and women. This is why I decided to launch a mobile app project entitled “Leadership for Her.” This app puts more practical tools to surmount cultural barriers at the disposal of women and girls. It will encourage women to express their leadership qualities in their companies and, by adopting best practices, contribute to reducing income and professional inequalities between men and women.
A leader’s decision-making process is often founded on values: in a concrete way and on a daily basis, are the decisions you make systematically guided by these values?
This is not a characteristic that’s unique to leaders. Everyone has to balance the ideal approach with the pragmatic one which is often called for. When you hold political office the imperative to stay true to your values is all the greater as you are operating on a collective level.
Do you often doubt yourself, how can a leader handle their doubts?
I don’t have the magic recipe: I think you always have know when to take a step back and take the time to reflect on the purpose of your engagement. When it’s time for action, you need to know how to decide, act and assume responsibility for your decisions, and in order to do that you need to forge an intimate conviction that leaves very little room for doubt. But above all you need to be able to admit your mistakes, display modesty, take criticism and learn from others. It’s a question of rhythm: political life has its own, life in a company too.
What part does listening play in leadership, how can you be both the one who speaks for a company, and the one who listens to those who surround you?
That’s a great question: I have always believed that, simply put, my role is also to relay the message from low to high. For example, every month I organize a town-hall meeting somewhere in the country which allows for quite open and free exchange with a representative panel of French people. These meetings allow me to shed light on government policy, but I too leave with insights, ideas and remarks that I then pass on to the prime minister or the president of the republic. I have never forgotten that a political official is first and foremost a representative.
Translated from French by Simon Mc Geady
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