All our lives, we're taught to fall in line--to conform to a set of standards that society deems acceptable.
When we demonstrate our individuality, we're often ridiculed, suppressed, or worse, stripped of our sense of possibility. These experiences chip away at who we are and force us into the land of ordinary, where all the normal people go.
Unless you're Madonna.
In her riveting acceptance speech for Billboard's Woman of The Year Award last month, Madonna opened up about the hardest personal challenges of her career, including countless instances of misogyny, harassment, bullying, sexism and ageism.
As a feminist icon and one of the most influential artists of our time, her courageous speech offers invaluable leadership lessons for how to chart your own course, remain true to yourself and make an impact, even when it seems the whole world is against you.
Let's take a look at the speech's three biggest takeaways:
1. Make Your Own Rules
It takes courage to resist the pressure to comply with the rules and expectations others have for you.
In her speech, Madonna talked about the rules that the music industry expects female artists to follow, most of which revolve around pleasing others. "If you're a girl," she said, "you have to play the game."
Thankfully, the only game Madonna ever played was her own. Despite continued backlash for dressing, dancing, speaking, and acting in ways that were deemed too provocative and inappropriate, she blurred the lines and sometimes, downright destroyed them.
Legendary leaders like Madonna often move out in front and aren't afraid to take a few arrows in the back. By breaking the rules and living on your own terms, you're more likely to distinguish yourself from the pack and architect a career as one of the greats.
2. Be the Rose That Grew From the Concrete
Madonna sincerely thanked all the people who cast doubt and criticism on her.
"To the doubters and naysayers and everyone who gave me hell and said I could not, that I would not or I must not ," she said, "your resistance made me stronger, made me push harder, made me the fighter that I am today."
If it weren't for consistent self-belief in who she is and what she believes in, Madonna would not still be standing today to deliver us this very important message.
When it comes to leading ourselves and our companies, paralyzing self-doubt and uncertainty can sabotage everything. We need boldness, clarity of purpose and vision, and self-belief to move the needle forward.
Madonna's perseverance shows that doubt and criticism don't have to be purely negative. She proves that disapproval can actually be used to fuel one's success and make a person stronger.
3. Give a Voice and Power to Others
In a particularly grave moment during the speech, Madonna reminded us about what life was like when she first moved to New York City. She said, "People were dying of AIDS everywhere. It wasn't safe to be gay, it wasn't cool to be associated with the gay community."
From the onset, Madonna has bravely challenged sexism and homophobia, using her fame and power to champion for gay rights, promote equality, and fight social stigmas throughout her life.
Many leaders remain neutral about social and political issues, for fear of how it might taint their image or shape their reputation. But Madonna's career-long activism shows how great power and fame can advance important causes and make a significant impact on the world.
Leaders rise by lifting others. Standing up and taking action to help the oppressed, underserved, and in need is not only a way to make the world a better place, but to leave a lasting legacy of leadership that people will always remember.