September 12, 2008
When Women Lead Like Women
The vice-presidential nomination of Sarah Palin has led to all kinds of interesting conversations in the media. And while many of those conversations raise plenty of pertinent questions, I've been struck by the underlying assumptions about what makes a person a qualified leader.
Granted, "qualified" takes on a whole new kind of weight when we're talking about the presidency (or vice-presidency in Palin's case) but even as these conversations trickle down into bus stop chats and water cooler debates, the operating understanding of leadership has a distinctly male bent to it. We want to know if Palin is decisive. If she's tough. If she can battle corruption and stand up to our enemies. We assume that these are all givens when it comes to making someone a leader. But are they the only qualities that count?
Those of us who have been in leadership positions for more than a half an hour know that the biggest challenge is often proving that we can lead like men, that we can be decisive and tough and wage battle for the sake of our cause.
I did a little Googling on leadership, and it's stunning how often military and sports terms are used in discussions of leadership - strategy, tactics, game plans, coaching, etc. Those are all fine aspects of leadership. But they aren't the only way to lead. In fact, it seems to me that when women try to lead in such a way, it simply doesn't work.
So as I've watched Sarah Palin enter this man's world (like so few women before her) I have been thinking about women in leadership and what it means to lead as women. Do we have to be about strength and strategy or are their unique aspects of being a woman that can reframe the way we think about leadership? I'm pretty sure the answer is yes.
I've got a few ideas about what that might look like. I'm sure there are plenty more - and I hope you'll add your thoughts in the comments section below! - but here are a few of the marks of distinctly female leadership. It is:
Collaborative: Most organizations are structured on a tier system - there are levels of management or coordination, each tier getting smaller the higher up the system it is. So eventually, you end up with one or two people who are in charge of the whole shebang. There might be a sense that everyone has input, but most people who operate in these kinds of structures know the real power is at the top. Women, however, tend to organize themselves into mutually dependent groups, each of which has a share in the outcome of the whole. Think about groups or organizations you know that are made up primarily of women - a small-business, a book group, a Bible study. It's often hard to say who the real leader is because the decision-making power is spread out across the whole organization. This structure makes room for new ideas, experimentation, creativity, and innovation because everyone involved feels a sense of ownership in the organization.
People-Centered: Businesses and organizations often say they are people-centered because it sounds shallow to say anything else. But when you look at the day-to-day operation of those organizations, are people really at the center or is the task at hand the driving force?
A friend of mine worked at a large church that prided itself on being a ministry first and foremost. They said they believed all of their employees were family and should be treated as such. After hearing about her experiences there, you couldn't pay me to be part of a family like that! This church expected their employees to be essentially on-call all day every day, yet work for less money than a shift manager at McDonalds. When my friend had a family emergency and needed to be out of town for a few weeks, she was not only told there was no way she could take extra vacation time (she offered to take unpaid leave) but that she needed to stick around because the church had it's annual fall kick-off coming up and needed her help.
Women bring an instinctive sense of how to put people first to just about everything we do. That instinct can serve us well in leadership - as long as we don't squelch it with the false belief that tasks are more important.
Outward Focused: It's easy for an organization to become so myopic that it can no longer achieve what it set out to do. But women tend to look outward by nature. We have an innate understanding of what other people need and will work hard to make sure they get it. It's good old women's intuition at work! We don't lose track of what we're doing or why we're doing it because we are good at pushing the focus off of problems and seeking out solutions. Instead of getting stuck in the details - a sign of inward focus--we are able to see the big picture and find our way into the clear.
So there's my three cents on the issue. Tell me, what do you think women bring to leadership that's unique to who we are and how God wired us?