I recently read an article in the Washington Post called “What Men Can Learn From Women About Leadership.” Its central premise is that male leaders could stand to learn a thing or two from their female counterparts. While this premise seems true to me, I’m wondering how useful it is.
Here’s the problem I keep encountering. Once we put issues of leadership style into the gender frame, the conversation goes awry. The conversation about male and female leadership might be productive if we knew how to have it in a productive way. But from what I can tell, focusing on the differences between male and female leadership behavior – even if those differences are statistically borne out – seems to have more downsides than up. First, it feeds an ‘us-vs.-them’ mindset that diverts us from more pressing questions of contemporary leadership. In addition, as gender roles and expectations evolve, more and more women are operating in a stereotypically ‘male’ fashion. Likewise, more men are leading with styles that are stereotypically ‘female.’ Thus, theoretical generalizations about gender quickly collapse under practical scrutiny. Last, at least among the leaders I coach, neither gender particularly aspires to become more like the other. So why keep making the argument that male leaders should learn from women if it does not motivate them to do so?
The quest for greater effectiveness is what compels my clients to do the hard work of personal change. I have helped many hard-driving, demanding leaders of both genders to integrate more collaboration and compassion into their leadership style. They didn’t do this work because they aspired to be more like women; they did it to become more effective. I have also helped many collaborative, compassionate men and women to lead more firmly and assertively. They, too, were motivated not by the desire to adopt a more ‘male’ style, but by the promise of more leadership potency.
In other words, for many leaders, greater effectiveness lies not in becoming more like a man or woman, but rather in achieving a better balance between assertiveness and receptivity. I find that focusing on the qualities themselves, vs. on the gender of who supposedly brings those qualities, is a more accurate and useful frame for the developmental work that my clients are doing.
As long as we remain fixated on ‘men do X’ and ‘women do Y,’ we’ll continue to be be distracted from the very issue that the male/female conversation is intended to surface: How do leaders skillfully balance the forces of achievement and relatedness, so that our organizations are healthier, our global society is more just, and our planet survives?