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Challenging the Narrative: Women and Leadership



A woman in a tailored burgundy skirt-suit stepped off a bus on Baker Street. It was 1941 and piles of rubble, and damaged buildings littered the London skyline. A painful reminder of the torrent of bombs dropped by the Luftwaffe in 1940. The woman was tall, her features striking, she wore a determined expression that belied a fiercely intelligent mind and a strong sense of duty to her adopted country. She gracefully took a long drag from a cigarette before dropping it on the pavement and crushing it with the toe of her moderately heeled shoes. She adjusted the folder under her arm, and she confidently walked into a very ordinary-looking building. Its address was 64 Baker Street, and it was the Headquarters of the Special Operations Executive (SOE).


The woman walked through the corridors of the drab building. Army regimental décor hung on the walls. Dramatised paintings of famous battles surrounded by dark wooden frames flanked her as she proceeded towards the conference room. It was almost 10 am, and the daily section briefing was about to begin as Maurice Buckmaster looked up and smiled as the woman entered the room. “Ah Vera, you’re here. Shall we begin?”.


Vera Atkins was a Romanian born British Intelligence officer for the SOE from 1940 to 1946. She joined the French Section of the SOE as Maurice Buckmaster’s secretary. However, her intelligence and natural leadership abilities soon made her the section head, and she became F Sections Intelligence officer. Vera Atkins is a woman I have always admired. A woman who has inspired me, the more I learnt about her life during and after the Second World War. Sarah Helms book 'A Life in Secrets' was instrumental in this endeavour and one I would highly recommend. Recently, however, the tenacious Vera also helped me make a very pertinent point about women and leadership. It was a weekend, and I was helping to facilitate an Army Reserve leadership weekend. It was an excellent package, and I was very impressed by the discussions amongst the reservists on the theoretical implications of leadership within their civilian roles. As such an exercise ensued whereby the Officer Commanding (OC) handed out a historical leader to each reservist who would then conduct some research and give a 5-minute presentation. The leadership figures ranged from Genghis Khan to Trump, Wellington to Martin Luther King. The presentations provided a brief bio of the leader and outlined their leadership traits analysing how effective they were. As I sat listening to the presentations, a thought occurred to me. Not a single one of the leaders were female.


Now, this is certainly not a new phenomenon. Throughout history, there have been relatively few women leaders compared to their male counterparts. This has been in the past, due to leadership being the consequence of political, economic or military power. Thus, societal and cultural norms did not allow women to have a leadership role and made such leadership positions unreachable. Although there are examples of very successful and inspirational women's leaders. It has been the 20th and 21st century that has enabled women's leadership to be studied in a more military context.


Increasingly new leadership theories incorporate a consistent theme; that of diversity. Whereby traditional approaches focus on one leader and their attributes and leadership style, emergent leadership theories concentrate not just on leaders but followership as well. They aim to understand leadership in more dynamic and modern organisational structures.

Despite the plethora of literature on leadership as well as its dichotomy of perspectives, it has only been in the last two decades that academic discussion on specifically women’s leadership has transpired. As many such definitions of leadership appear to be gender-neutral:


‘A process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal’.


Yet, it can be argued that theories are based on male case studies. So it makes sense that historical figures utilised for academic analysis or leadership examples are commonly male despite new organisational structures and the introduction of women into ground close combat roles, female leaders still face a masculinist culture dictated by history and tradition. Thus, as I sat listening to the presentations on male leaders, I was troubled that, in the year 2020, there was still so little representation. So, I decided to highlight this by volunteering to present a leader of my choice. I chose Vera Atkins.


I asked the group what all the leaders they had presented on had in common. They seemed confused and suggested similar leadership styles or professions. When I stated that actually, all the leaders were male, there was a collective shift in the room. The group hadn't realised. So I talked about Vera. About her role in the SOE, her selfless commitment at the end of the war to track down 118 of her missing agents. The determination and intelligence that helped her finalise the fates of all but one of those missing agents. Her unbridled intuition when it came to recruiting the first female agents, ensuring they were prepared for the challenges and short life expectancy of an agent's role in Nazi-occupied France. Vera was undoubtedly a leader, in an era where leaders were classed as the Montgomery's and Eisenhower's of operation Market Garden and D-Day. By challenging the unconscious trend on that leadership weekend, I hope I opened up the narrative on leadership within military and civilian contexts. To show that leadership doesn't always come from the 'Great Man theory of leadership', but that more diverse examples can be found in women’s military history and can teach us so much about effective leadership styles and behaviours. As well as unearthing the wonderful histories of these unknown women at pivotal moments in our nation’s history.




N.B. If you would like to learn more the remarkable male and female agents of the SOE, their training and the equipment they used to carry out their clandestine activities. Please help out a local museum and visit the Combine Military Services Museum in Maldon, Essex.

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