Why are there not more female leaders in business, industry, and other sectors? Certainly women have leadership potential as has been shown by such luminaries as Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and Dr. Condoleeza Rice, former National Security Adviser to President George W. Bush, former Provost of Stanford University, and possible presidential candidate. According to these successful women as well as others the reason there are not more of their gender in high-level leadership positions is that society discourages women from stepping up into leadership roles beginning when they are just little girls.
The issue seems to boil down to this: young girls who step forward and attempt to be leaders are immediately labeled “bossy” by both their peers and society. Peer pressure and societal mores are thought by Sandberg, Rice, and others to eliminate women from positions of leadership before they even have a chance to test their leadership abilities. This societal phenomenon has led Sandberg, Rice, and several other highly successful women to initiate a nationwide campaign to ban the term “bossy” and, more importantly, the negative connotations that go with the term.
According to ban-bossy advocates, young boys—unlike young girls—are encouraged by their peers and society to step forward and become leaders. Ban-bossy advocates claim that young boys who exhibit leadership skills are called assertive while young girls who exhibit the same skills are labeled aggressive or worse. This societal double standard—according to advocates—holds young girls back; girls who, as adults, might make excellent leaders in business, industry, and other sectors. It would be interesting to know how Sandberg, Rice, and other successful women dealt with and overcame this phenomenon, but more on that topic later.
To make their point that girls are held back, ban-bossy advocates arranged to have several young girls interviewed and the interviews aired on national television. During these interviews young girls were asked about standing out from their peer group as leaders. Uniformly the girls interviewed claimed their friends would not like them if they tried to be leaders and that they would rather be liked than be leaders. The issue for them was popularity. This seems to be the crux of the issue. Girls who attempt to be leaders are considered bossy by their peers and the girls interviewed would rather be popular than be leaders. The self-images of the girls interviewed seemed to be almost totally dependent on the perceptions of their peers.
While I am concerned about societal bias and any other factor that might prevent young girls from attempting to develop leadership skills and women from choosing to pursue leadership roles, the interviews with young girls who would rather be liked than be leaders dampened my enthusiasm for the ban-bossy campaign. In fact, I am concerned that Sandberg, Rice, and others are missing an important point; a point that every one of them should understand: leadership is about doing what is right and making the right decisions as opposed to doing what is popular. The bane of leaders is having to make unpopular decisions. Consequently, by its very nature leadership is a lonely enterprise and leaders often find themselves at odds with those they are trying to lead. These facts do not bode well for girls who are overly concerned with being popular among their peers.
Certainly Sandberg and Rice know this from their own experience. They can be forgiven for not wanting young girls and grown women to have to go through what they went through to become the leaders they are, but the inescapable fact is that the trials they went through are what made them who they are. Young girls who want to be leaders are going to be have to be willing to walk through the fire of unpopularity to get where they are going. Any person—male or female—who is overly focused on popularity will not be an effective leader. People who want to be leaders—men or women—must have thick skins, positive self-images, and a commitment to leading that is stronger than their need for friendship or peer group approval.
I teach a leadership seminar for rising stars in the business community; a seminar that attracts more women than men by the way. One of the key points we deal with in this seminar is the lonely-at-the-top aspect of leadership. There has never been and never will be a leader—male or female—who has not been called “bossy” and much worse. Human nature is self-interestedly fickle. Hence, people love their leaders when they agree with them and hate them when they don’t. Further, every leader knows or soon learns that those who are your friends today may be your detractors tomorrow. People who disagree with a leader can be vicious in trying to undermine what the leader is trying to do. Leaders of organizations soon learn they have few friends, at least few in the organizations they lead because they often have to make unpopular decisions for the good of the organization. Said another way, leadership is a contact sport and not everybody—male or female—can handle the contact.
I could turn this column into a dissertation on the subject in question—there is much that could be said—but owing to space limitations I will focus on just one aspect of leadership: leading during times of change. Strong leadership is needed in organizations at all times, but it is needed most during times of major organization change. This is important to understand because making sure organizations continually improve is a leader’s responsibility and one cannot improve an organization without changing it. Leading organizations through major change is difficult. It requires leaders to take people where they are not yet ready to go; always a difficult, tumultuous, and lonely enterprise. Trying to lead an organization toward a new and different destination is like trying to turn an aircraft carrier; it can be done but it’s not easy.
People in organizations grow accustomed to doing things a certain way and over time they become comfortable with a certain routine. Leaders who seeks to change the comfortable routines of an organization’s personnel put themselves in the bulls-eye for the slings and arrows of those who oppose the change. People do not like being forced out of their comfort zones. I call the concept organizational inertia; the tendency of an organization to keep doing things the same way they have always done them until sufficient leadership is applied to change things. But applying sufficient leadership to overcome organizational inertia can turn a leader into a pariah among those he or she leads—at least temporarily. Leading during times of change is not for those who are concerned about their personal popularity or peer approval.
I agree with the goal Sandberg and Rice are pursuing: getting more young girls to step up and begin developing leadership skills. But I do not agree with how they are going about it. Banning the term “bossy” will change nothing because the term is not the problem. The problem is within the young girls whose self-images are so peer dependent that they are turned away from being leaders out of fear of negative peer pressure. Any young girl who would shy away from taking charge out of fear of being unpopular is not going to be an effective leader regardless of how talented and how smart she might be. Perhaps it would be better if Sandberg and Rice initiated a nationwide campaign to help young girls overcome the I-would-rather-be-liked-than-be-a leader syndrome. Sandberg and Rice both had to overcome this syndrome. Why not share their experiences in having done so with young girls and women. That is a campaign I could get behind.