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Superman Style Leaders are Alienating Women: Why Can’t We Solve This?

Reprinted with the kind permission of The Guardian

The “superman” style of leadership – predominantly masculine, authoritative, assertive and with a tendency to command and control – still rules supreme in many large organizations.

However, a new generation of women leaders are emerging and I’m convinced they have the potential to challenge the business status quo and change corporate culture for good.

A recent Aspire survey found over 40% of women identify themselves with a “collaborative” leadership style: working with others to achieve results rather than being a solo manager who leads from the front. In total, almost 60% of women associated themselves with management characteristics including democratic, nurturing, calm and egoless: a skill set not stereotypically associated with leadership.

One of my biggest passions is persuading businesses to accept there are multiple, credible ways to lead a team and get results. Just one style of leadership will have minimal impact in an increasingly competitive market. It is the inclusion of multiple styles, approaches and ideas that lead to a stronger bottom line and happier workforce. Neither men nor women should feel the need to conform to the traditional mould of leadership, particularly if that means having to play the part of “one of the boys” when that’s not who you are.

Three quarters of women surveyed by Aspire were considering leaving the corporate world, turning away from an environment where they don’t feel encouraged to make a difference and play to their natural strengths. Yet change can be difficult when those at the top don’t see it as a priority. The way I see it, any woman unhappy and struggling to progress in a traditionally masculine environment has three options:

1. Carry on not leading to your full authentic potential

2. Leave and find (or start) a more enlightened company

3. Stay where you are and drive change for yourself and others

While the first and second options might seem rather flippant, it is important to remember that if you’re unhappy in your current situation, there are more options out there. The post-recession workforce is increasingly unforgiving and, from corporate firms right down to small enterprises, there are many forward-thinking businesses out there who are embracing diversity and alternative styles of leadership.

Driving the change yourself is definitely a road less travelled, but it’s a direct challenge to top-down change that can takes eons to arrive. Throughout history, the majority of rights or advances for women have been fought for at grass roots levels, and this is no different.

Taking a step to drive change doesn’t mean singlehandedly starting a corporate revolution or rocking the boat so much you alienate yourself. There are small but practical steps you can take to bring about change. A great starting point is to join or create your own network of like-minded women within your organization. The opportunity to share thinking and success stories will inspire others and may provide the confidence needed to take the next step.

Another pragmatic approach is to take a little time out from day-to-day life to work out what the issues really are. Is your organization really, genuinely stuck in the past? Or are the decision-makers so busy and focused elsewhere that they simply don’t see the benefits of embracing alternative styles of leadership? Arrogance and ignorance are very different and if it’s a case of the latter, then all is not lost by any means.

In my experience, a useful first port of call can be the HR department. Over 69% of HR professionals in the US are female, so you’re likely to be pushing against an open door. Where better to make the case for a workforce which is motivated, loyal, democratic, courageous and focused? And don’t forget, they might well be under pressure themselves to improve the gender balance in their organization.

Finally, do think carefully about how you make your case. In my experience, being militant is rarely the best way forward. It’s also important to emphasize that this isn’t just a “women’s issue” either. To me, it’s a business issue; and something that affects everyone.

To anyone feeling frustrated or struggling to wear a different mask at work: don’t feel you have to conform and shy away from your natural tendencies. Don’t sit around and wait for change to come to you. Drive the change and earn the authority to challenge the “superman” style and become a more empowered leader.

 

Posted by Dr Samantha Collins, CEO and founder of Aspire on Tuesday, September 16, 2014
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