Leadership and Gender Preconceptions

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I have been watching our cities mayoral race with interest. The thing that seems to differentiate them most is their leadership style, or what they think of as leadership. Yes, they do differ on issues and it’s natural in a campaign to emphasize the issues that they differ on in order to distinguish themselves and attract voter. But I still think that underneath it all you see different styles of leadership.

The challenger has an underlying criticism of the current mayor, that they are not a strong leader, that they lack vision, that they haven't cast a vision for others to rally behind and pushed that agenda forward. The challenger claims that what our city needs is strong leadership and naturally he feels like he can provide that leadership that he sees the city is missing.

Both the challenger and others have been critical of the mayor’s leadership qualities.  In looking at it, I started to wonder why they don’t see the mayor as a leader. And I realized that maybe part of the problem is we think about this incorrectly and are looking for the wrong things because of our longstanding preconceived notions of what leadership is, what it looks and acts like.  

To explain this I think I need to point out that our current mayor is a woman and the challenger is a man.

Now if I were to ask you to name 10 of the top leaders down through history I would guess that on many of your lineups cards all 10 would be men. Now is that because men are naturally better leaders or is it a little more complicated than that? Is it possible that while we do have this dominance of historical male leadership figures, that this warps our thinking in this current age as to what leadership is and looks like? Is it possible that our perception of what leadership looks like is based on our historical amalgamation of leaders and the character traits they exhibit, and they way they get things done?

Are our views of leadership based largely on male style leadership not because they are the best or most effective but because they match the qualities of most of the leaders we look to in the past?

I will confess that while I liked the mayor, the way she operates and what she has been able to accomplish, that I too didn't see her as a strong leader, but does that say more about me then it does about her? I also am very affected by the dominance of male leadership down through history that made me think that there must be something intrinsic to maleness that makes for a good leader.  I mean come on, thousands of years of male-dominated leadership can't be wrong, can it? This perception on my part led me to think that leadership meant doing what is commonly considered male type things. Now I should interject and point out that whenever I use such broad strokes as characterizing something as male style leadership traits I am seriously generalizing because it's impossible to talk about male/female issues without gross generalization, so please grant some grace as you have probably already thought of exceptions to what I am saying. But back to what I was saying,  there are different ways that men and women tend to lead and they can both be very effective, the thing is that I tend to see only the things that men do as being strong leadership.

Generalization here, but men tend to have a position, vision or idea and then rally people around that idea, come up with a plan and then drive that plan forward hopefully gaining followers along the way until they have enough support to enact that plan. There is nothing wrong with doing things this way, but can I say that it's not the only way?

Something our current mayor has done extensively and quite effectively has been as issues come up she has brought different groups together, she has listened and probed, made sure people were heard and brought them to some kind of resolution or path forward. It’s called collaborative leadership and it’s often the way the women lead. Interestingly this often means that they don’t get as much credit individually but the credit goes to the team.

An example of this is when the city council had its annual strategic planning process and instead of bringing in an outside facilitator the Mayor led the brainstorming and agenda-setting process.  Their process was fairly simple, each of the council members had a chance to put down what issues they saw as important and then they began the discussion, arguing and prioritizing those issue points until they had their top issues resolved and had a path forward for what they were going to do in the next year.

An interesting point is that the Mayor's initial list of priorities didn't look anything like what the council walked out with, and looking at it from a strong male leadership style it would appear that she was a weak leader. She didn't drive her agenda forward like any good leader would. But coming out of it I heard more than one council member talk about how different and effective this strategic council meeting was from the meetings they had in the past.

Maybe the challenger and I both need to update our impression of what a good strong leader looks like? And how there is more than one way to lead a city forward.


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