Monday, March 8, 2010

Leadership and the Double Standard

In today's New York Times executive coach Peggy Klaus offers much good advice about how women can be more effective leaders. Link here.

Most of her advice would work equally well for men and women, so I was somewhat surprised to read that her female clients are still bedeviled by the notion that they are being held back by the double standard and cultural stereotypes.

Of course, there is some truth to this, but the truth does not lie where Klaus' clients think it is.

Examine the following statement, from a woman: "Even in this day and age, a guy barks out an order and he is treated like someone who is in charge and a leader. But when a woman communicates in exactly the same way she's immediately labeled assertive, dominating, aggressive, and complaining."

This argument is familiar. It is also vapid. Unfortunately, it is repeated so often by so many people that it has come to be taken as a self-evident truth.

It contains several obvious flaws.

First, unless he is a drill sergeant whose leadership skills are being exercised on the rawest of recruits, a man who barks orders is not immediately treated like someone who is in charge. Do you really believe that the soft-spoken and mild-mannered David Petraeus advanced in the military by being good at barking orders?

A man who barks orders will be immediately identified as a bully, not a leader.

A woman who thinks that leadership involves barking orders is being held back by her own ideology. She has learned leadership from television and the movies, not from real leaders.

For her leadership involves posturing and role-playing. And she believes that it must involve dramatic conflict.

In fact, none of those are true.

Besides, as Klaus astutely points out, if she believes that she must choose between barking orders and keeping silent, she will most likely become too passive for her own or anyone's good.

To return to the quotation, we must also note that it is pure sophistry to say that a woman can communicate "in the exact same way" as a man.

Has anyone really given this idea any serious thought? Different voices, with different range and pitch and tone and timbre, communicate different moods and feelings.

Tenors and baritones are not interchangeable. Anger in a soprano voice is not the same as anger in a baritone.

So even if it were a question of barking orders, in humans, a male bark and a female bark cannot be considered to be the exact same thing.

What then makes for a good leader? Klaus offers numerous good suggestions, all of which aim at correcting all-or-nothing, barking-or-silence thinking. Klaus reaches women to appreciate the different ways they can contribute to meetings and exercise leadership.

A woman who disagrees with her boss should avoid confrontation and drama. But then again, so should a man. The key to disagreeing effectively is to present facts and information that throw a policy or strategy into doubt. You should not be assertive or self-aggrandizing, but should allow the facts and information to speak for themselves.

If women have been induced to believe that they should appeal to emotion, that they should lard their presentations with feeling, they have simply been misled.

If the woman is in charge, she must know that leadership involves looking and feeling like you are in charge. Good posture, attire that looks like it's ready for business, and an attitude that is clear, firm, and direct... these are qualities that will establish a leader's position.

A leader is confident, poised, and comfortably in control. She does not agonize in public over her decisions and does not share her feelings about the choices she is facing.

If these skills come more easily to men than to women, there is very little we can do about it. We cannot repeal human nature just because it does not conform to an ideological bias.

Yet, these skills are still well within the capacities of most women. Witness the success of a Margaret Thatcher or a Meg Whitman.

I would guess that it is easier for a woman to learn the skills required to become a successful corporate executive than it is for a man to learn domestic and childrearing skills.

Given that men and women are not the same thing, there is always going to be a double standard. As Klaus' client made clear, it is not that easy to identify. Real problems arise when we look at the problems of leading by by example.

Leaders lead by setting a good example more than by barking orders. A good leader does not order everyone to his desk at 8:00 a.m. He does not institute a series of penalties for those who are late. He does better simply to set a policy and to follow it himself.

The most important leadership problem women face lies in the fact that young male employees will not want to emulate their female bosses. Worse yet, young female employees will often not want to emulate female executives either.

They might want to advance to the point where they become like Jack Welch or Jamie Dimon, but they will be far more reticent and even resistant to becoming like Meg Whitman. And this, even though Meg Whitman achieved an extraordinary level of business success.

Obviously, business success can go a long way to overcome these resistances.

The good news is that, constitutionally, women are perfectly capable of exercising effective leadership. The bad news is that the template for leadership seems to have more in common with male character than with areas of human experience where women excel naturally.

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