When I meet or work with women in top leadership positions who really have accomplished something and who are highly regarded by others, one of my observations has been that the absolutely least interesting about them is that they are women. This holds regardless of whether they are leaders in technical, sales, or more general management. They are remarkable in many other ways though. Their domain knowledge melded with their personality and ability to work with others allow them to accomplish truly great things. However, for each of these remarkable individuals (regardless of gender), there are others who have reached far, but with a mix of behaviours and skills that may be less desirable or admirable in one way or another. It’s hard to say what the “right” mix is, but I have noticed that people tend to recognise these truly remarkable people when they meet them.
Getting to this point in a career is a lot of hard work, and a mix of luck, opportunity, ability to take advantage of opportunity and enlist other people “to the cause” on the way, as well as ability to evolve and mature as an individual. It’s not a linear progression and cannot be planned, but it can most definitely be supported and shepharded by companies that want to be conscious about what type of leaders they develop.
Most often when I see articles or news about boards or leadership groups where the overwhelming majority is men, the comments focus on how terrible it is that they don’t have more women. The point is very often that there are many qualified women. This may or may not be true, however, postulating that there are enough qualified female candidates becomes a “get out of jail free” card for the people who could do more to advance women throughout their career. And the analysis of why there are too few women in these positions often becomes focused on some of the less desirable elements of career advancement, like taking risk, being good at negotiating salery, and so on.
Yes, you can get far with classic alpha-male behaviours as a leader, but in recent years, we have started to understand that truly effective leaders build on trust. If somebody you trust has a strong sense of purpose that you can relate to, you really want to work with that person. As examples, Simon Sinek talks about how inspiring people are rooted in a clear “why we are doing this” coupled with trust, and Brené Brown talks how ability to show true vulnerability makes you genuine as a person and somebody others are willing to trust.
I have for a long time believed that the lack of women in leadership is not because men are better leaders, but because the definition of successful leadership has been defined by men. And that by competing with men on these terms, women are doing themselves a disfavour. What is great with the new understanding of efficient leadership is that it does not come out of a gender perspective, but out of research and hard evidence that focusing on what used to be called “soft skills” is actually key to team performance, and directly impact company performance.
We need to rewrite the definition of successful leadership and systematically encourage and invest in development of leaders with these qualities. I have had the pleasure to attend a conscious leadership course developed and held by Red Hat People, and I believe it has been happening for a while, especially in the knowledge intensive IT industry. However, when encouraging and shepharding employees’ development, we need to be conscious and avoid building on the same gender bias, and end up training men in becoming better, more modern leaders when women already have an advantage we should exploit! And hopefully we can then get a new breed of really effective leaders into board and leadership positions who embrace the whole person in leadership. If we do, the gender discussion may become less relevant as there is reason to believe that women on the group level are likely to be more balanced leaders.