Imagine a leader of a successful company. They’re probably assertive, right? Have indisputable self confidence, maybe erring on the side of ego, and often lead the company with an iron fist.
It’s true, a lot of businesses have leaders that resemble this description, but one thing is likely – the leader you imagined was probably a man. For generations, women have faced barriers to obtaining careers with a leadership role. Even when they ultimately reach the position, women still encounter a double-edged sword based on the belief that leaders take one single form.
This is our cultural bias at work, and it’s scientifically proven. The stereotypes we associate with our leaders and the contradictory feelings we have about women – their generalized tendencies and natural attributes – lead us to assume that women are incapable of being effective leaders, or that women who do fill this role are cold and unlikable. We teach our young girls to be kind, friendly, and always have smiles on their faces. As they grow into women, this expectation still holds. It’s why the phrase “You’re too sweet for business,” is a telling example of the supposed conflicts that exist between a woman’s nature and the cutthroat environment of business.
Men, on the other hand, are associated with qualities that, for most people, more closely resemble an effective leader. Experiments have shown that if a man and woman with identical backgrounds and credentials apply for the same leadership position, the man is more likely to receive the job offer. With such an extensive period of male domination, the result of these experiments could be tied to a difficulty in separating male associations from those we make with effective leadership.
On the other side of this doublebind are the women who fill the mold of a traditional leader: one who is tough, with a strong handshake and no-nonsense attitude. While this woman is considered capable of the leadership role, she is often perceived as emotionless and untrustworthy or controlling, rather than level-headed, assertive, and strong.
This isn’t a male vs. female mindset; it’s several conflicting stereotypes held by people regardless of gender. In fact, as I began settling into a leadership position of my own, I found myself bound by what I believed a leader was supposed to be.
I am a collaborative, detail-oriented introvert. My experience told me that leaders were loud, confident visionaries. It wasn’t that I couldn’t see myself as a leader, but I questioned whether I should leave some of my personality behind to fit into this role.
The realization I later came to was that this position would certainly challenge me, as it would anyone else. But by being who I am, I bring my own unique set tools to the table and those tools are my strengths.
All it took was a shift in redefining the leadership role. Better yet, understanding that leadership, like all of us, doesn’t fit one specific mold.
Sure, leaders must be strong, but strength is shown in both decisiveness and vulnerability. Leaders must give direction, but direction can be discovered internally and found collaboratively.
Today, women and men alike are defying the status quo, becoming leaders that work in the trenches and the corner office, managing the company’s finances while encouraging life-work balance. By identifying their strengths and those of their teams, we’re accepting the challenge of leadership but not accepting its limitations. This has given rise to a new kind of leader and started to shift the cultural norm.
Whether intentional or not, a leader leads by example. It’s precisely why we cannot define effective leadership by gender or stereotypes. Every leader is different. It’s the example set by an individual that defines them as a leader and that, for all the aspiring leaders out there, is left up to you. Tricia Phelps is the CEO of Taste the Local Difference, Michigan’s local food marketing agency. She leads a team of eight strong women throughout the state of Michigan who are a voice for the communities they live in and make a daily impact on their local food system.
Tricia Phelps is the CEO of Taste the Local Difference, Michigan’s local food marketing agency. She leads a team of eight strong women throughout the state of Michigan who are a voice for the communities they live in and make a daily impact on their local food system. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was originally published in the April edition of the Traverse City Business News.