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image of leaderA friend recently told me a story that painfully illustrates one of those “unconscious mindsets” that get in the way of women reaching their potential. He told me of a woman who had worked for many years in a family-owned business. The founder was her grandfather. She assumed that she would succeed her grandfather when he retired from the business. But, no, he tapped a grandson who had little experience with the business.

We have images of how leadership looks. Typically our images match what we have seen most. And what we have seen most is leaders who are white males (tall and relatively lean, by the way). The result is a challenge for those who don’t “fit the picture.” And that includes women. They aren’t male; and they may lead in ways that get great results but don’t match traditional ways of leading. Women may influence by persuasion, motivate through collaboration and make decisions by involving others. And, note, if they do lead in masculine ways, they may be disliked and criticized. (That’s the “double bind.”)

Apparently the grandfather just didn’t think his experienced daughter fit the picture. He couldn’t see her abilities through his own fixed ideas of how his successor should look. So this form of unconscious bias occurs outside the corporate world. Wherever it occurs, it is a obstacle for women. It blocks women from making the contributions they can make.

What can we do to broaden our “pictures” of how leaders look and lead?