In a recent post, I challenged Sheryl Sandberg’s conclusion that women need to be more self-confident. I suggested that differences in “gender communications” mean that the typical woman may not seem as confident as the typical man because of the way she expresses herself.
Many attributes we associate with being a leader are defined in terms of how the average man – rather than the average woman – demonstrates those attributes. As a result, we say more men have leadership attributes and find more women lacking in leadership skills. If we can learn to understand and appreciate gender differences at work (how the average man vs. the average woman thinks and behaves), we can see that both men and women can be effective leaders. It is our gendered concepts that keep us from seeing that both masculine and feminine ways of leading can get great results!
Decisiveness is one leadership attribute that may suffer from this gendered lens. How we make decisions shows up in two different ways, the masculine way and the feminine way. To avoid stereotyping, I use Max as a prototype for a masculine approach and Fran as the prototype of the masculine approach. Max tends to think in a logical, sequential way. In solving problems, he focuses on the goal and marches efficiently towards it, avoiding distractions. Fran focuses on the process as well as the goal. She will ask others for their ideas, involving and including them and evolving her own decision based on the perspectives she gathers. She gathers ideas, processes input and synthesizes multiple points of view.
What do we mean when we say someone is “decisive”? I suggest that we associate Max’s way of solving problems and making decisions with decisiveness. “Decisiveness” means reaching the conclusion directly and on your own. A woman who processes (particularly out loud), asks superiors and peers for input, and involves others in a decision may be seen as “indecisive.” If we look for decisiveness in choosing a leader, we may find it only in someone who makes decisions like Max. We may pass over the Fran-like person. We may miss the point that the Fran-like person gets very good and sustainable outcomes (not to mention buy-in and creativity).
My mission is to help people appreciate both masculine and feminine ways of working. I want to emancipate concepts of leadership from notions of gender. We will get gender diversity at the top in business – which is a very good thing for the bottom line – only when we expand our definitions of leadership. We will have a level playing field only when we focus on results more than on whether someone got the result in a “masculine” way.