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lead from frontI am on a mission to dissolve gendered notions of leadership. In recent posts, I have pointed out how we define “self-confidence” and “decisiveness” to match masculine rather than feminine ways of thinking and behaving. By associating attributes of leadership with how the average man (I call him Max) operates, we make it more likely a man will be seen as a potential leader. We make it more likely that the average women (I call her Fran) will be passed over as lacking in leadership.

I have a recent and sad example. I have worked over several years with a very successful young woman. I will call her Ashley. Year after year, both Ashley and the team she led had the top results in their division. Yet Ashley was passed over for promotion to the next level. When she was told she was not selected for the job she wanted, Ashley’s boss told her that those who interviewed her were not sure she could “lead from the front.” Even though they knew her leadership style got great results, it was different from how leadership has historically looked.

On the masculine-feminine continuum that I explore in my book, Difference Works, one area is How We Motivate (formerly called “work style.”). This area has to do with what energizes us and how we motivate others. On Max’s side of this continuum is “Competition.” On Fran’s side is “Collaboration.” Max (who has more testosterone) competes; he fights to win, get to the top, and gain status. Max sees and exercises power in a hierarchical, top-down way. This is surely what my friend’s boss meant by “leading from the front.”

Ashley did not lead that way. She led from the side and from the rear. She operated on Fran’s side of this continuum, being strong at collaborating. She exercised power though her team. Notwithstanding how well this worked, she was not seen as a leader. Only those who operated like Max were seen as potential leaders. The person who got the job Ashley wanted was a man who had never led others and had much lower results; he was “one of the guys.” This is not supposed to happen in 2013! What a loss, not only for Ashley but for her company.

While collaboration is valued in the workplace, those who lead collaboratively may not fit the gendered image of leadership. Quoting myself, “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.”

How do you think we can get rid of gendered definitions of leadership?