The Reluctant Expat: Thoughts on Women and Leadership

My name is Christine and I’m an expat.

I didn’t want to be an expat, I wanted to be a local. When I came to the Netherlands in 2004, I thought the deck was stacked in my favor. I had a Dutch boyfriend and a good 10 years of experience living abroad. It didn’t work. 14 years later and I still feel like I’m trying to settle.

I’ve never had a leadership position in work, and probably won’t. But, I’m an opinionated type and have some thoughts on leadership. So, I’m going to share them as a proposition that will hopefully spark a conversation and give you lots to disagree with, as well as a little to agree with.

Leadership has always tasted like a male concept to me. The tips and tricks women get on leadership tend to be code for “act like a man.” Its Sheryl Sandberg telling us to Lean In and then revising her position to Option B. So much for a traditional view of business leadership.

Is there a female concept of leadership? There are a few and they tend to look to biology and history. We arrive at the healer and the midwife who combine nurturing with strength. But this direction, “not your male way, but our female way,” that’s not the kind of conversation I want to start.

Now, my work involves using story structure to tell real-life stories. I start from fairy tales and that’s where I look for inspiration these days.

So, fairy tales and leadership. You won’t find a flattering representation of women in fairy tales. Women in fairy tales either have no power and much beauty or lots of power and an evil streak. It’s a tale as old as time. The idea that a woman with an opinion is a threat isn’t new.

This wasn’t an encouraging start for my beloved fairy tales.

And yet, as I dug deeper into one story, I started to see some potentially useful parallels, a metaphor that I want to share with you.

Cinderella leaves the ball by Anne Anderson (1874-1930)

Cinderella. The girl who lost it all and then it found her.

Let’s reframe it and cast Cinderella as the expat, the local girl who moves abroad.

Life before the move was bliss. She had her family and her familiar surroundings. Things made sense. Like Cinderella, before we moved abroad, we knew the rules, we knew our place in our world. We may not have liked it, but we mostly understood it.

Then Cinderella’s mother died. If this is a metaphor for moving abroad, she loses security, the familiar falls away. What happens when she experiences this loss? There is no outpouring of grief or sympathy for Cinderella. Her old life is simply replaced with a new life when her father remarries. All she can do is hold on tight and try to adjust.

Do you all remember your first month in the Netherlands? How about the first time you rode your bike in busy traffic here? Hold on tight and try to adjust.

When they move, expats lose a familiar set of landmarks; physical as well as social and professional ones. Your physical geography changes, which we all expect. But your social and professional geography change right along with it.

The new landmarks, well they’re harder to make sense of. You get lost looking for the grocery store. You can’t navigate the path from acquaintance to friendship anymore. The road to professional success just got a whole lot bumpier.

Welcome to your new life where uncertainty is the only certainty.

It’s Cinderella’s new life. There are no more pretty dresses and affection. She’s got work to do and she’s got to do it on her own.

Despite her bad luck, Cinderella makes clear choices about how to behave in this moment. She strives to be kind and patient. She has the memory of her mother even if her new life doesn’t have role models or friends. These are the thoughts she dwells on as she spends her evenings alone by the kitchen fire.

Expats also tend get a lot of time to themselves, time to reflect, whether they want it or not.

We lead a life split in two. We are both here and there. We belong neither here nor there. We live in two languages or more, every day. We are constantly seeking the ground between what our instincts tell us to do and what a particular time and place require.

In mastering this division, this duality, in making choices about how to act and what to do in each moment, we develop our own personal compass. We find our own true North. It’s a direction that gives us a set of guidelines about how to live that are deeply personal, based on our experiences, our history, our culture, and our values.

And isn’t that what leadership is? Leading from your gut? Knowing what’s most important in this moment and making choices that reflect that deep inner knowledge? Isn’t that the kind of conviction we see in our greatest leaders and role models? Isn’t it the thing we miss in the weakest of them?

Is this kind of leadership on a small scale based on self-knowledge our expat super power?

When I went to the Arnhem Together kick-off, it was in part because I had failed to find a way to feel truly at home and connected in the Netherlands. Going was an admission of failure.

I see it differently now. That event? That was my invitation to the ball. It was your invitation, too.

Only at this ball, there is no prince, and no one cares what your dress looks like. You are surrounded by beautiful people. What matters here is who you are and which truth you are trying to live.

What we’ll build here, I hope, is a community that’s going to help us all find and live that truth, a community of leaders that will help us all feel a little more settled and a lot more supported.

And who knows, perhaps a little less “ex” and a little more princess along the way as well.

This essay was originally written for an Arnhem Together expat women’s brunch on 8 September 2018.

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4 Comments

  1. Hi Christina, greetings from Natalie (Lena’s Malaysian friend!)

    We made it to Accra, Ghana after all. Been here 3 weeks now & loving it so far…Loved this piece & am jealous that Arnhem Together only came about just as I was leaving…

    All the best…

    • Natalie, thanks so much for stopping by and reading! Hope you’re having a lovely time and settling in well. If life brings you back this direction, we’ll have to hunt up the Arnhem Together folks… together. Best!

  2. I like the way you weave the unintended course between expat life, leadership and the Cinderella analogy. It’s funny how life finds us and draws us into what we are meant to do. I am an unintended leader. After working for many years in a mans world of banking and tech, I see other women leading like men, and sometimes I see myself doing these bizarre things. But, I do believe that I have found my own style, and it’s definitely a feminine nurturing and inclusive thing. Hope you dare to lead more often!

    • Life has got plans it doesn’t share with us, that’s for sure! Developing a personal style of leadership requires an artful combination of head and heart. I’m not surprised to hear you’ve found it – or that you do bizarre things. They’re probably some of the best! Thanks for stopping by!

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