This blog marks the beginning of a series of articles about entrepreneurship during our second spring. Each story explores the fire and clarity that this transition can bring. We will be sharing the honest reflections on ambition, purpose and wisdom from entrepreneurs within the MPowder Community. And we feel very lucky to be starting the series by sharing this interview with the wonderful Debbie Edwards of The Gentle Leader.
The Gentle Leader launched just a few weeks’ ago. Its purpose is to coach women in leading authentically and honestly in order to balance work culture and create fulfilling, happy environments. We think you’ll agree, her offering feels long overdue! We wish her every luck with all that happens next and hope you enjoy the transcript as much as we enjoyed the conversation.
With love, The MPowder Team.
1. Tell us a little bit about The Gentle Leader and your plans for its launch this year.
‘The Gentle Leader has existed within my heart for a few years now and I remember distinctly when it started to show up. I had been running my own business for quite a few years - doing the life juggle that so many of us do during the years when our children are small - but I had started to feel disillusioned and, quite honestly, I had really begun to grow tired of the client facing corporate world that I had been around for nearly 25 years.
There was a constant questioning in my head that 'there must be more to life' and as my children were getting older the voice just got louder. The final tipping point was a personal trauma - my dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer and sadly passed away 8 weeks after diagnosis and my mum was diagnosed with stage 4 Lymphoma pretty soon after. I found myself in the eye of a grief storm and decided that enough was enough.
Of course, as with any huge life change, there was a period of breakdown, unlearning, relearning and simply picking myself up off the ground. I found a wonderful therapist who helped me to explore not just my grief and loss but also started to address some of the traumatic moments that I had gone through as a working mum in a very male dominated corporate field.
Until this point I had buried it deep and labelled it as 'just something we all go through'. She helped me to see that there were deep patterns in my life where I had just not allowed myself to show up as my authentic self and I wanted that to change dramatically. The gift from my dad passing away was the ability to step back and face some painful truths that had to be addressed before I could step into what I feel is now going to be my life's work.
During this period I had also set up another new business (yes, I am that crazy woman who did that!. It is a digital recruitment and learning business designed to support and educate young people to transition powerfully into their future careers and to do so in a truly authentic way. Every time I went to a potential client to pitch what I was doing, or found myself in a school talking to teachers about it, the same thing happened - there would always be a woman in the room who would look at the work I was doing with young women and say 'I think I need this - do you work with women like me?'. I started to see a pattern and, quite honestly, I could also see that women were still struggling with some of the issues that I had witnessed, and experienced, for the past 25 years. I had to wait to do the work on myself and recover from my grief first. Then, in October of 2019 I decided that I was finally ready to launch The Gentle Leader into the world and the response has been amazing.
It feels like the time is right. I have done the work on myself and have stepped into being completely and utterly my authentic self. It feels so peaceful and has been utterly transformational for my mindset and my relationships. That said - I still absolutely have days when I am stumbling around with it all and feeling VERY vulnerable!
“My plan for the business is to offer coaching to women who have also gone through their working lives never truly feeling like they can show up as their authentic selves. To show them that there can be another way to lead and that vulnerability truly is a superpower. I feel as though the world needs more of this and the thought of being able to bring this to the world gives me goosebumps.”
2. Your business is focused in what we can learn from females in the workplace. What do you feel distinguishes women’s leadership style and value from men’s?
‘That is such a great question to pose to me at this stage in my life because right now I have the privilege of watching and witnessing the difference in styles across many age groups and there are still so many stark differences.
From my work with younger women there is still such a confidence gap when it comes to stepping into their own leadership. I ran a pilot course with young women and spent 4 weeks working solely on their self belief and confidence and the transformation in those girls was breathtaking. There were a number of reasons for this . Most significantly, I had given them their first ever opportunity to only think of themselves as wonderful, amazing human beings who were at the peak of their potential - they were aged 13 - 17 and were completely in the thick of assessing their worth linked only to a grading system. You cannot imagine the negative impact this is having on our young people - for at least 7 of their most formative years they are given feedback predominantly based on how good they are at exams. By the time they make it into a leadership position they will have been taught to 'shape shift' in so many ways that they have lost the ability to truly know who they are. Front loading self belief into their training completely changed the lens through which they saw themselves and the impact on how they led and collaborated and supported each other was dramatic.
Having conversations with young women about their authentic talents and creating an ability for them to see themselves as leaders at a much earlier age is critical to bringing in feminine power into the workplace from day one of their careers. Equally, having progressive conversations with young men about equality, inclusion and the complimentary balance that can be achieved by women and men working together as joint leaders is also one that is necessary but lacking in education. We have to remember that children only know what we teach them - building in good patterns of thinking and behaviour regarding equality is vital if we are going to stand a chance of building workplaces that are truly human led. If we did that, and women and men were allowed to show up authentically, vulnerably and equally - we would have a siesmic shift in the work cultures that we are currently building around the world.
“I work with a lot of tech businesses and there is such a deep need for some of the leadership qualities that women naturally possess - emotional intelligence, collaboration, community, empathy…”
So much is about to change in the workplace that it could not be a more important time for women to step into their authenticity.’
3. What made you act?
‘I was reaching 50 and honestly could not step one more foot further on this earth without building something to support women like me to truly see how remarkable and wonderful they are. When I saw that there was still so much inequality in the workplace (I launched my first business during the #METOO scandals) I realised that it was time to give women the power to make the changes for themselves - and that needed to start from within.
“I had spent so many years trying to act in a way that was more masculine and aggressive in order to survive and progress. I did not want anyone else to feel as though they cannot be themselves and still absolutely thrive in their careers.”
The world needs this balance of feminine and masculine leadership styles but first we need to support women in owning who they are.’
4. Who is your ideal client?
‘My ideal client is a woman who is coming into a powerful transition phase in her life, like the menopause. She is ready to fully step into her authentic power and define what success looks and feels like to her at this stage. I am also working on some products that are built to help mothers to transition back into work positively.’
5. How will you define success for The Gentle Leader?
‘Truthfully, it already feels successful for me. Just being able to survive what I have over the past few years and then feel finally able to step into the world as my authentic self is a massive win! I cannot tell you what it has taken to get here! Long term I want to be working with women global to help them to move through the huge transitions in their lives with power, authenticity, knowledge and gentleness.’
6. Has your definition of success changed over time?
‘I don't think it could be more different! I suppose that is where the authenticity comes in - the word is used so heavily now that it has stated to be a little bit misrepresented. ‘Authenticity’, for me, is simply about knowing myself so deeply that I make decisions and choices based solely on the anchor points that I have discovered are important to me. Things like being present in my life, feeling ok about taking care of myself, creating a gentle footprint in the world that can have an impact on other peoples lives - these have become part of what centres me on a daily basis.
'“Success is no longer about the job title, the possessions, being the loudest most important voice in the room - they were all an ego driven 'version' of me that no longer serve me at all.”
I still have to face the outside world though, talk to large corporate clients, investors etc but I am now absolutely comfortable showing up as myself. Quite honestly, without having gone through this, my business and my mindset would not be in the right place to even consider delivering such a heart focused service. I have discovered that there is a place for gentle power.’
7. What correlation, if any, do you see between age and your ambition?
‘My ambition has never left me. It has always been the same - but with different drivers and motivations. In my early career I was ambitious but I had to be 'doing all the things' as if I needed to constantly prove myself. I remember having a conversation with an older colleague and trying to explain how empty I felt in my career. I could only describe it as getting into a really fast car every day and putting my foot full throttle but without any idea of where I was headed or why I was even getting behind the wheel. With the beauty of hindsight that was one of those pivotal moments when I should have let myself stop and take some time out - but my programming to work even harder was strong! At my age I no longer feel driven by blind ambition - now it is fueled by knowledge of myself first, the world and simply seeing myself as a student first and a teacher second. I move gently through the world and relish every interaction with other human beings along the way. Stepping into The Gentle Leader has already opened the most amazing doors for me personally and I am just staying in that mode of openness.’
8. Has the menopause transition influenced your outlook towards work and life?
‘The menopause for me was a strange transition at first. I had been taking medication to regulate (sort!) my periods and hormones since I was 13 and, to be honest, it was a miracle that I managed to have children. I had severe endometriosis that started to get worse after the age of 37 and after 2 unsuccessful operations to sort it I elected to have a radical hysterectomy at 39:
“It was an awful time. I had to be put into an induced menopause 6 months prior to the operation to check that I could tolerate HRT. I had an absolutely battle with surgeons and medical staff to even get to that stage and at the same time I had a 7 and 5 year old to look after!”
It felt like hell sometimes but I just knew that it was the right path for me - I woke up the day after the hysterectomy and felt better than I had in years. I suddenly realised how powerful it was to no longer be at the mercy of such strongly fluctuating hormones.
Finding the right HRT was tricky and having been on it now for 11 years I still have a huge ( ed note - read: ‘very condescending’!) discussion with some of the male doctors who look at me over their glasses and ask if I plan to come off it any time soon (cue complete rage from me!). I now refer them to my notes and ask them to just do their job - that soon shuts them up!
“Turning 50 was the real turning point for me - I felt like a survivor. My girls are now 18 and 16 and we are all working through some powerful transitions together.”
We have had some beautiful moments together over the past few years and I am so proud of how they are moving through the world on their own terms. I had a moment a couple of years ago that made me see them as leaders and teachers in my life and I hadn't had that before. One day, soon after my mum had started chemo we were told that the treatment wasn't working. I felt devastated. It was too much. I took myself off to my bedroom to have a secret cry and my youngest came to find me. She sat down next to me so gently and took my hand and said, 'Come on Mummy, tell me what's wrong?’. I told her what was happening and that I was worried that I was going to lose my mum as well as my dad and that it made me feel sad. She looked at me and said; 'Maybe we need to think about it differently. Let's just think that if the treatment works, we get to keep her, but if the treatment doesn't work then Grandad gets to keep her'.
Her ability to see it so simply just floored me. We really do need to witness that wisdom comes from the most wonderful and surprising places and that young people have so much to teach us.’
9. What do you wish your younger self had known about:
Life: ‘That I was already enough the moment I was born.’
Love: ‘That the Hollywood version is not the most beautiful. If someone cares enough to run you a bath after a hard day then those thoughtful moments are the things that sustain deep love.’
Health: ‘It truly is precious and should be treasured above all else.’
Work: ‘That you should NEVER attach your worth or your dreams to work. Any success in work should only be a by-product of the fulfilling, purposeful way you have chosen to show up for yourself in your life as a whole.’
10. What, if anything, has helped/ is helping you manage your menopause well?
‘I highly recommend HRT! After that I now have a very holistic approach. To be honest this has also been developed as a result of grief, but I have found it very beneficial in my life as a whole:
Fresh air - as often as I can
Breathing - different techniques to regulate my nervous system and any heat/anxiety
Yoga - to connect with my heart and to be present (Also suppleness which is essential at this stage)
Acceptance - of ageing, my changing looks, my grey hair, my shape - no longer are my views of myself left in the hands of society and the beauty industry. They belong to me and as such I will define them on my terms.
Letting go - of whatever is making you feel heavy or no longer serves you.
Boundaries - My life. My rules.’
Finally, Is there anything else you’d like to share with the MPowder community about female entrepreneurship in our middle years?
‘I don't think I will ever be able to convey how mind-blowingly terrifying it can be but also, to know that I am out having an impact in the world is joyous.
So if you can embrace some risks, step into your vulnerability and accept the good with the bad then I cannot recommend it enough. It has taught me so much about myself and I don't think I would have reached this point without it.
“You are a bloody goddess - take that power out into the world or simply take it for a spin and see how it makes you feel - I promise you won't regret it you gorgeous thing!”