The 'Flaws' with Women In Leadership

Recently I had the privilege of being a panelist at a local university that exclusively enrolls women. Among a full complement of course offerings in various disciplines, the college of business offers a Masters in Organizational Leadership. It is an outstanding program run by a dynamic and successful business woman. The students range in age and experience from recently matriculated undergraduates to seasoned professionals coming back to school later in their careers. Outside of gender, there is a great deal of professional, age, economic, cultural and racial diversity in the room.

Throughout the course of the degree program the professor has a series of panel discussions on a variety of topics ranging across the spectrum of professional and personal issues that impact leadership success. The two subjects that seem to be the most interesting to the students are the panels of recognized successful women from various disciplines and a similar panel of successful men both discussing "real world leadership".

This was the third time I have been invited to address the class. Every year the instructor invites four men to sit on the panel. This year we had a bank president, a college professor who late in his career went to a Fortune 500 company as head of HR, the Executive Director of a large social service non-profit, and me, a former corporate Chairman and CEO turned venture capitalist. Our assignment as panelists was to share with the women in the class our perspectives as men of women in leadership roles. Easy enough, right?

The class has advance notice that we are coming and is always armed with lists of questions they would like to discuss. The questions are always very thoughtful and practical. These are bright people and they are highly engaged and invested in their own development.

On this specific day the same question was asked of the panel a few times throughout the two hour class. The question was, "what are the flaws you have seen in women in leadership and what should we do to avoid these flaws in our leadership style?" I had the luxury of being last in the sequence to respond. The other panelists talked about the "conventional wisdom" regarding women in leadership; suppress your emotions; look at things more quantitatively/financially (implied: "and less holistically"), don’t get too close or too personally involved with people and situations, etc. In other words, try to be the archetype of what we have come to define as the perfect corporate male.

Rightly, that answer didn’t sit well with the class. I think they expected the answer they got but knew subconsciously that they weren’t comfortable with it. The reasons why should be obvious.

I was a bit shocked and disappointed in the entire exchange. I thought we had come a lot further in our understanding of leadership and women in the workplace. I have read and personally experienced so much about the value and benefit of diversity of experience, perspective, thinking, and innate methodology to addressing situations and solving problems. And I bought it. I still buy it.

The answer to the question of "what are the flaws you have seen in women in leadership and what should we do to avoid these in our leadership style?" is that it is the wrong question and one that should no longer be asked. There aren’t "flaws" that women inherently bring to leadership, or at least not any flaws that an equal percentage of men also bring to leadership.

Leadership is not gender biased. Leaders are leaders whether male, female, old, young, black, brown, white, formally educated, or schooled in hard knocks. Leadership either is or it isn’t present.

After listening while my fellow panelists debated the topic and the class engaged in dialogue with them I offered my response. I suggested to the class that they both disregard and remove this question from their mindset. To be an effective leader each of the members of this class and each of us needs to bring to the stage our complete self. Who we are intellectually, physically, emotionally, spiritually, and experientially is who we are as a leader. Unless we are in full alignment with our holistic selves we have no chance of leading effectively.

There are two fundamental mistakes people make in leadership positions that result in failure and being labeled as "flawed" leaders; trying to operate outside of integrity of who they are as a person and trying to align their leadership style to an environment or situation that does not mesh with their natural style and skills. Leadership is a lot like a marriage. (Management, by contrast, is like dating.) Leadership like marriage takes complete commitment and total honesty to be successful and reach its full potential. As the leader you have to be all in. If we are out of integrity and trying to be something or someone we aren’t or are suppressing our real personality and skills sooner or later we will be exposed. As I explained to the class, normally our true selves come out under stress in both marriage and business. The moment when real leadership is most needed by those around us is the time when they come to know the real us.

Marriages tend to fail because the person we thought we were marrying (or the image we created of that person in our hopeful mind) turned out to be different when faced with day to day reality and pressures of real life. Similarly leaders fail when they are exposed to be something other than what they pretended to be. Leaders who present themselves all the time in full context of who and what they are, will never have a moment of revealing those previously unknown "flaws".

Secondly is the question of alignment of skills to the demands of the leadership position. The topic of women’s emotions came up frequently in class; a completely invalid but easy stereotype. I have known an equal number of highly emotional men and women and an equal number of stoic men and women. Women simply don’t have a corner on the emotion market. Whether a man or a woman, if you are an emotive person don’t sign up to be a leader in an area that is best served by the stoicism of an actuary. Conversely, if you are a "one speed" personality, don’t try to align yourself in environments that thrive on surges of energy. There is no mystery in failure if you set yourself up for failure on day one. Alignment of personality and skills with the demands of the opportunity is a cornerstone of success.

We left the class in a better place than we found it. The panel spent a lot of time on this question and developed a strong consensus with the women in the class that they should have the courage to take their entire personality and belief system into their leadership opportunities. We, as employers, told them that we want to have the benefit of their full complement of views, experiences and skills and not some diluted form. Further we all agreed that fulfillment and success in careers is fundamentally enhanced by finding opportunities that fully leverage all you have to offer, whether male or female.

We made a breakthrough on that Saturday with the thirty or so people in the room. If we are lucky, the conclusions we reached and the passionate exchanges we had will spread. Slowly but surely we will break down these ridiculous assumptions and start to realize the full potential of everyone we work with every day….It’s a start.

First published on Human Resources IQ