Tuesday, September 27, 2011

To Each Her Chimera

We are talking about leadership style choices for women.  More specifically, I'm considering leadership qualities that are more consistent with the feminine stereotype (nurturing, cooperative, modest) versus the male stereotype (assertive, dominant, outspoken).  In previous posts, I've examined the two extremes: Leading from the Heart (traditional female qualities) and Command and Control (traditional male qualities).  In this post, I look at a leadership style that combines both traditionally masculine with feminine qualities: the Chimera.

By definition, a chimera is a composite creature, sometimes having disparate parts (lion's head, goat's body) or composed of genetically distinct tissues.  I've stretched the definition somewhat to describe the female (or male) leader who displays both traditionally female and traditionally male behaviors. One might argue that it's an inappropriate choice, since chimeras are typically viewed as being grotesque creatures that don't fit in.  I'm taking a different view...one in which such a composite combines the best qualities from two disparate sources and creates a new whole that works well.

This woman has adopted a mixture of strong leadership qualities that are stereotypically male, while retaining some communal qualities.  By being assertive, ambitious, and outspoken, she sends the message that she's capable of going toe-to-toe with the boys.  However, having a few communal qualities (cooperative, nurturing) will show her to be in synch with her traditional gender role.  Many successful female leaders fall into this category.  As I noted above, however, this approach does not always  put a woman on equal footing with a man whose natural gender-based tendencies are congruent with strong leadership qualities.

There is also another set of leadership styles, often referred to as transactional vs. transformational.  The transformational leader sets high standards of behavior and establishes herself as a role model by gaining the trust and confidence of her team.  She frequently discusses past achievements with her subordinates and offers new ideas for achieving even higher goals.  This type of leader mentors subordinates and encourages them to advance to the point that they outgrow their current position and move on to a higher level position elsewhere. This leader often retains strong ties with these mentees, eventually becoming colleagues and developing long-term working relationships.  The transactional leader, by contrast, manages subordinates by setting up defined responsibilities, monitoring their work, and using a reward/punishment approach to make corrections. 

A woman who exhibits the transformational type of leadership behavior might be much more successful at being perceived as a strong leader, compared to the transactional approach. This would be true, of course, for men as well.  However, it might be an added quality that helps a woman overcome the disadvantages of the gender-leader inconsistency.  Research suggests that women, more than men, adopt aspects of the transformational style, including: 1) motivating their followers to feel respect and pride in being associated with them, 2) exhibiting excitement and optimism about future goals, and 3) mentoring.  Perhaps women can use these in place of aggressive or competitive behavior to demonstrate strong leadership.

Well, there you have it.  The topic of leadership styles is obviously complex, and I've only skimmed the surface.  However, the material I've covered has helped me to better understand what the issues are for women in selecting a leadership style and some of the options that might work better than others.  Every person's situation is different, so that the choice of leadership style must be tailored to the particular circumstances.  This point also means that a leader must be prepared to change styles as conditions change.  Moving to a new job, transitioning through career stages, or interacting with different groups of people all require periodic reassessment of leadership modes.  Those leaders who insist on using the same style no matter what will likely run into trouble at some point.

If you are in a leadership position and are having difficulties, it might be beneficial to reassess your leadership behavior.  If you are a woman, it is especially important to determine what your organizational expectations are for its leaders and how gender roles are viewed in your workplace.  This is where female role models may be especially important.  Those women who have successfully established themselves as leaders in their fields will have adopted those specific behaviors that work.  By observing them and how they lead will be invaluable to younger women struggling to develop their own styles.

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