Friday, September 30, 2011

Is My Lipstick Smeared?

In episode 11 of the 4th season of the television series, Mad Men, Peggy gives a presentation to Playtex executives.  Before she gets to the conference room, one of her male colleagues (she had earlier rebuffed) notices that her lipstick is smeared on her teeth.  He doesn't warn her.  She gives her presentation, failing to notice that people are trying to alert her to the lipstick problem.  Later, someone breaks the news to her.  Her colleague just smiles.

If you are unfamiliar with this TV series, it is set in the 1960's New York and focuses on an advertising agency. Although the show revolves around Don Draper (the main ad man), there are lots of episodes and scenes that deal with women working in a male-dominated world.

I was reminded of this show and the scene described above during a conversation with a colleague.

I was talking with this male colleague about a women-in-science group that I sometimes attend.  He inquired about what we were discussing this semester, and I mentioned that one topic I hoped to address was leadership styles.  He soon began talking about several university administrators who happened to be women and mentioned something that he observed one of them doing at meetings.  Apparently, this woman would walk into the conference room, sit down, open her purse, and begin to carefully apply lipstick. When finished with her makeup, she would call the meeting to order. 

My initial response was something along the lines of, "Hmmm. That's interesting.  I wonder why she did that?  Most women would apply lipstick (those who wear it) in private." We were interrupted by the arrival of some other people, so I did not have a chance to question this colleague further about why he mentioned this particular example during a discussion of women in leadership positions.

I later thought more carefully about this conversation...not about why a woman in a high position would call attention to the fact that she was a woman by conspicuously applying makeup (I suspect she was oblivious to how this looked to others), but how my colleague interpreted this behavior.  

One might dismiss the lipstick observation as an offhand, unimportant remark.  However, it clearly made an impression on this colleague, who was obviously critical of this woman and offered this up as an example of her poor judgement.  It reminded me of critical comments made about a woman's physical appearance or other attributes that have no bearing on their professional capabilities. 

This colleague is married to a professional woman who is very successful and highly regarded.  Consequently, I figured that he was making a statement about how women need to be careful (in dress and behavior) to avoid calling negative attention to their gender in professional settings.  Perhaps he was leading up to a suggestion that our discussion group counsel the younger members about inappropriate behavior?  Or maybe he did think that this woman's lipstick habit indicated an overall incompetence in chairing meetings? I'm not sure.

Women can call attention to their gender unintentionally, especially when nervous.  Some women play with their hair or jewelry, which is acceptable in a social setting, but might send unintended signals in a professional setting.  Men seem to be particularly alert (consciously or subconsciously) to sexual signals.  Lipstick, which has an interesting history by the way, is a sexual signal (although its sexual connotations are not always recognized).  I think this is why my colleague noticed it, but I doubt that he realized why it was so memorable.  I also doubt that the female administrator was aware of this either (and would probably be mortified if someone pointed it out to her).

I know that some women dismiss such concerns about dress and behavior, saying that they should be judged on their professional capabilities rather than their wardrobe or personal quirks. However, the fact that this senior male faculty member had noticed the lipstick application, remembered it years later, and pointed it out to me (in the context of women in leadership positions) suggests that women are still being judged inappropriately, even by men who are generally supportive of women.

Photo Credit: AMC, Mad Men, still image of Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss)

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.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Command and Control

I'm discussing three leadership options for women.  In the last post, I described a leader who exhibits traditionally female qualities (nurturing, cooperative): Leading from the Heart.  In this post, I will consider a leader who has for the most part adopted (or naturally has) masculine characteristics congruent with strong leadership (assertive, competitive, aggressive, etc.): Command and Control. 

I know several women, both in academic and non-academic settings, who favor this style.  Although they are successful in the science profession and may be strong leaders, they are not always viewed in a completely positive light.  Some of them seem to have difficulties gaining the respect of subordinates, peers, and/or superiors.  According to experts, the problem may lie in the inconsistency between gender role expectations and leadership expectations.  A woman who is assertive and outspoken may be seen as presumptuous and over-confident.  If she has mostly discarded all feminine features, she is especially criticized for having violated her gender role and is seen as a flawed person, regardless of how successful she is professionally.  Although this probably explains some of the reactions to such women, I'm not so sure this is the whole story.

I’ve particularly intrigued as to why such women are frequently challenged (or disrespected) by subordinates (male and female).  I don’t have enough in-depth information to be certain, but I can speculate about some possibilities. I suspect that a woman who is assertive, aggressive, and competitive, but whose work is not of the highest quality (evidenced, for example, by publishing in low-tier journals or not bringing in large grants) would be viewed as having an over-inflated ego.  The same might be true of a young female who has not yet established a strong professional status, but behaves as if she has.  The fact that she is acting in a contra-gender fashion might add further to the negative perception.  (A man, by contrast, might not be downgraded as much for having an over-inflated ego).
In decision-making, a leader may behave democratically and allow subordinates to express opinions or make decisions autocratically and discourage any input from subordinates.  If a woman is highly regarded by peers and successful, then behaving autocratically would seem to be justified (to a degree, but not as much as for a male).  On the other hand, a woman who is perceived as having a too-high opinion of herself would have special difficulties with subordinates.  If she’s not that successful and also ignores her subordinates’ input by being autocratic, then she will likely not be seen as a capable leader.  Eventually, her demands are seen as irritating and repressive, and subordinates begin to rebel, challenging her decisions... at first behind her back, then face-to-face.
An autocratic approach could also sully interactions with peers--other scientists.  In joint projects as PI, she might insist on making all the decisions and not invite co-PIs to participate (or veto their opinions, if they do not coincide with hers).  You can imagine how well this would go over with her colleagues. I've seen this situation on several occasions involving lead PIs who were female.  They treat co-PIs the same way they treat their staff:  assigning tasks, monitoring their work, and excluding them from the decision-making process even though they may have co-designed the project and are responsible for a major aspect of it.  I suspect that such women either think this behavior is expected of them as a leader or they are over-compensating for low self-esteem.

In any case, adopting the Command and Control style of leadership can be problematic for a woman, especially in interactions with colleagues.  Perhaps a senior woman who has reached the top of her profession might successfully implement this style of leadership, but I would expect that even she would experience some resistance. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Leading from the Heart

In the last post, I promised to muse about the different leadership choices women may make.

Women more often exhibit communal qualities (nurturing, cooperative, supportive) and are generally concerned with the welfare of others.  Men more often exhibit agentic qualities (assertive, aggressive, confident, attention-seeking), characteristics traditionally ascribed to a strong leader.  A woman seeking a leadership style may behave in a mostly feminine fashion (Leading from the Heart), in a masculine manner (Command and Control), or in a mixed style (Chimera).  

In the following posts, I will try to explore a bit more deeply each of these options, looking at why they work or don't work well for women.  In this post, I take a closer look at the leader who exhibits mostly traditionally female qualities.  This person may be male or female, but the female will be behaving in a manner consistent with the feminine stereotype.

This leader is concerned with the welfare of subordinates and may exhibit few qualities expected in a strong leader.  She may be timid, backs down when challenged, is tentative rather than confident (in stating an opinion or giving orders), is usually soft-spoken, rarely speaks up in meetings, and is more happy being in the background.  On the other hand, she is empathetic, concerned, honest, collaborative, encouraging, and supportive--attributes that make her good at team-building and mentoring. Such a woman may struggle with her leadership role, especially if she finds herself in an organization that favors the Command and Control type of leader and/or where there are few other leaders like her.

However, there is a growing recognition that the take-charge, autocratic type of leader is not compatible with the 21st century world where people from diverse backgrounds have to work together and where complex problems require teams of people who can all contribute creative ideas.  The networking skills of the female leader may prove to be an asset in the future, rather than a liability.  A woman in science, especially in academia, also will be training or mentoring others, which requires many communal qualities.  A female scientist in a non-academic setting will likely have a staff  who look to her for encouragement, vision, and emotional support.

I can think of several women who fall into this category.  Not surprisingly, in many science settings such women still are not generally viewed as leadership material and are undervalued.  Will this change in the future, as networking and other communal skills become more appreciated or in demand? Is this a viable choice for a woman in science now?  Is this style more likely to be successful in academia compared to other settings?  I don't have answers to these questions, but I do think that this style might work for some women in some circumstances.

In the next post, I consider the Command and Control style of leadership.  

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

She's Too Bossy!

Imagine the following scenario:

Jane is a PI at a research laboratory and has been asked by the lab director to be team leader for a new, high-profile project.  The other team members are mostly male, some of whom have served as team leaders for previous projects.  Jane has never been selected before, but was tapped in this case because she is the acknowledged expert on the topic of this new project.  Jane is very excited about this new challenge and dives right in, setting up meetings and organizing plans for tackling the project. 

She wants to show that she's a capable leader by taking charge and being decisive.  In the first meeting with her team, she lays out her plan for the project, assigning different members to tasks based on their respective areas of expertise. As she is going through her plan, she notices several people frowning and others who are making inaudible, but clearly critical comments to their neighbors. When she finishes, no one says anything...they just sit and stare.  The atmosphere in the room is definitely hostile.  Later, Jane learns that her team members have complained to the director that she is too "bossy" and "dictatorial".  Jane is mystified by this reaction because on other projects male team leaders typically set forth the overall plan and assigned roles in exactly the same way she did.

What happened to Jane in this hypothetical scenario is not uncommon.  Women who display traits normally associated with strong leaders (assertive, independent, dominant, out-spoken) are criticized as being "bossy" or, worse, the other "b word".  In contrast, if a woman behaves in a more feminine way (soft-spoken, hesitant, nurturing), she is judged to be a poor leader.  A recent paper Are Leader Stereotypes Masculine? A Meta-Analysis of Three Research Paradigms explores the classic no-win situation that women leaders may experience.  This work is summarized in The Glass Hammer, a website for women executives.

The problem lies in the inconsistent expectations for leaders and for feminine behavior.  Leaders are expected to behave in a dominant fashion, be assertive and outspoken--characteristics that are consistent with stereotypical male behavior.  A man behaving like a leader is more readily accepted.  However, a woman who displays normal leadership qualities is viewed as being presumptuous; her behavior clashes with the feminine stereotype.  This Catch-22 situation is sometimes referred to as the Double Bind.

These leadership stereotypes work against women, sometimes in a subtle way, but can have a definite effect on a woman's career.  If an assertive, outspoken woman is passed over for a job or promotion because she's judged to be "overbearing", while a man with the same characteristics is hired, this is discrimination. Similarly, if a woman is seen as being less qualified for a leadership position because she's "too nice" and is not selected on this basis, this too is discrimination.  The key here is that a decision is made based on gender stereotypes, not on actual capabilities.  The fact that such an action would be considered discriminatory and illegal would probably come as a surprise to some people who hold such beliefs (e.g., based on traditional social values or religious beliefs).  They may view women (and some men) with predominately communal attributes (cooperative, nurturing, caring) as being incapable of being strong leaders.  However, anyone who makes hiring or promotion decisions based on such reasoning may find themselves in very hot water.

Not all women in science have problems in terms of leadership.  For some, their leadership style may coincide with the expectations of the organization.  In academic settings, communal behaviors are compatible with teaching and training, so that women may safely display such characteristics without detracting from their overall role as a leader.  However, in other science jobs, mostly involving research and other competitive endeavors, there may be a greater expectation for a leader to be more aggressive, forceful, confident, and outspoken.  It is in this setting that the organizational expectations for leader behavior and female behavior are major determinants of a woman's experience...and, ultimately, her career success.  If the expectation in the organization is for the Command and Control type of leader and a woman's natural inclination is to be something else, there will be problems.  Some men may also run into this conundrum and have similar difficulties being viewed as capable leaders.

A woman (or man) who is unaware of leadership pitfalls may fall prey to such biases.  She may think that her problems with subordinates or superiors or her failure to advance in the organization are her fault.  She may begin to question her capabilities, which leads to a loss of confidence and a downward spiral effect on her overall performance.  By itself, leadership difficulties may not be overwhelming, but may tip the balance along with the added pressures to publish, bring in high-profile grants, and balance family and work.  This is what I suspect contributes to the "leaky pipeline".  I also think that subtle disadvantages for women and advantages for men compound over time, leading to greater disparity at each career transition.  Women in STEM fields see others (men) who do not have to work as hard and/or seem not to have the same difficulties.  The failure to meet expectations has an increasingly greater impact as a woman advances from student to professional. This is extremely discouraging.

When women are given opportunities to perform in a leadership role, they may find the position difficult or they may even completely fail...and never recognize why.  Superiors, co-workers, and subordinates may unknowingly contribute to such failures because of their biases.  Some women eventually decide they are just not cut out to be a scientist or engineer and quit.

The disadvantages from various sources accumulate over a career, until a breaking point is reached.  Leadership bias is only one of several potential ways a woman may be disadvantaged.  However, it's interesting that leadership skills increase in importance with each step up the career ladder from student to post-doc to assistant professor/junior scientist to tenured professor/senior scientist and beyond.  Lacking any formal leadership training (and the natural acceptance afforded men in leadership roles), a woman is at a huge disadvantage.  Without leadership skills (or savy about avoiding gender-leader inconsistencies), a woman may become increasingly disadvantaged as she is faced with more and more leadership responsibilities at each career transition. 

So, what can women do?  One obvious answer is to be aware of leadership pitfalls and how inconsistencies between organizational expectations and gender roles may arise.  Developing good leadership skills is also important.  But what leadership styles work for women and why?  In the next post, I consider three options women have to choose from in a leadership role.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Gender and Leadership Styles

Before I delve into leadership styles for women, we first need to understand a bit about how both our gender and our workplace influence not only our choice of behavior, but whether it's effective or not.

It’s difficult to determine the impact of gender on leadership behavior, in part because of the simultaneous effect of gender roles and organizational roles.  Even though we may strive to perform in a genderless manner, we cannot escape the fact of our sex and its effect on our behavior as well as on others' expectations of us.  Men and women who achieve leadership status in an organization may behave similarly because of norms regulating the performance of tasks in that role.  A PI, for example, will prepare grant proposals, develop and carry out research, hire and supervise a staff, write and publish papers…all activities required to be successful in this role and that are essentially genderless.  However, there is always leeway in how these activities are carried out. A PI may be friendly or reclusive, ask colleagues for advice or not, be aggressive or timid, be autocratic or democratic in making decisions, work alongside staff or have distinctly separate activities.  Exactly how someone carries out various tasks may be influenced by gender, either due to their own gender-related tendencies or to organizational expectations of their performance in that position.

Characteristics relevant to leadership that are more often ascribed to men are termed agentic:  assertive, controlling, ambitious, dominant, independent, daring, self-confident, competitive.  A leader must speak and act confidently, capture and hold the attention of others, generate a viable plan of action (and vision), and motivate subordinates to carry out tasks.  In contrast, characteristics more often associated with women are communal in nature: sensitive, sympathetic, kind, warm, affectionate, nurturing, and modest.  Behaviors arising from such characteristics might be: being a good listener, supporting others, expressing concern for others’ welfare, being cooperative, avoiding attention, speaking softly or tentatively.  These features are counter to what is traditionally expected in a leader, but are not entirely without merit in that role.  For example, some effective leaders are good at “reading” other people, especially body language.  

I am talking here about general qualities and perceptions related to gender; there are obviously exceptions, with men having communal qualities and women with agentic qualities. 

We can see how a female, in attempting to meld her naturally communal qualities with those qualities associated with a leader, would develop a somewhat different leadership style than a male whose natural inclinations already coincided with strong leadership qualities.  A female who is naturally assertive, out-spoken, and competitive would perhaps develop a leadership style more like that of a male with similar tendencies.  We could also envision a male with communal qualities becoming a leader with a mixture of qualities more like the first female.

Problems arise mostly because of other people’s expectations: their beliefs are upheld with men in the role of leader, but not with women. This is partly due to traditional views of the female gender role, which is seen as inconsistent with the leadership role.  Here’s where the Double-Bind comes in.  There is often prejudice against female leaders, because leadership abilities are more stereotypic of men. However females who exhibit strong leadership qualities are also viewed less favorably because their behavior is counter to what is expected of the female gender.  We can't win.

It’s easy to see, then, that a woman who behaves in a stereotypically female fashion will not be viewed as an effective leader, whereas a woman who exhibits mostly male-stereotypical qualities (assertive, competitive, etc.) will also be viewed as a flawed leader (or at least not readily accepted).  Research shows that women who adopt a very authoritative and directive leadership style often encounter resistance, whereas men with exactly the same qualities are gauged to be highly competent leaders.  Some women try to take charge in a very authoritative fashion, in an attempt to show they are strong leaders, but this approach backfires for them.

There is thus the possibility that a woman who exhibits the strong qualities of a leader, but also shows some communal behaviors (warm, cooperative, nurturing), will have better success.  However, she will still be at a disadvantage because her supportive behaviors may be interpreted as weaknesses (in a leader).  However, this may depend on specifics of which leadership features are adopted (e.g., autocratic vs. democratic) in combination with the communal qualities she exhibits....and what the organizational expectations are.

Do I know women who exhibit these different styles of behavior, either in leadership positions or who are potential leaders?  Yes, I can think of examples for all of these.  See the next post for more on this topic.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

It's My Way or the Highway

In this series of posts, I'm talking about leadership styles and using a movie K-19: The Widowmaker to illustrate contrasting types of leader.  In the last post, I described the participative or democratic style, exemplified by the character, Capt. Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson), who captained a Soviet submarine during the Cold War era (the movie is loosely based on real events).  He and his crew are assigned to test drive the first nuclear submarine. After Polenin angers superiors, another officer is assigned to serve as captain: Alexei Vostrikov (Harrison Ford).  Polenin stays on as XO, which sets the stage for a clash of leadership styles.

Vostrikov is the polar opposite of Polenin when it comes to leadership styles.  He's autocratic and very task-oriented (as opposed to a democratic leader like Polenin whose leadership style focuses on the welfare and morale of his subordinates).  Vostrikov makes decisions on his own and never solicits advice or input from his officers or crew.  When Polenin tries to advise him about how best to handle his crew, Vostrikov ignores him.  Later, the two clash over the brutal drills Vostrikov puts the crew through to ready them for firing a nuclear missile.  Vostrikov believes that Polenin has not done his job in preparing the crew for the grim realities of serving on a nuclear submarine.  Vostrikov puts the mission above all other concerns, including the lives of the crew (the ultimate task-oriented leader).

Initially, the viewer is sympathetic to Polenin and admires his rapport with his men.  As the movie progresses and the crew succeeds in firing the missile, however, the crew (and the viewer) begin to see the two leaders in a different light.  When disaster strikes later on (the cooling system for the nuclear reactor fails), everyone is put to the test.  The viewer begins to realize that the shoddy maintenance of the submarine and failure on the part of Polenin to demand the best of the crew is partly responsible for the fix they find themselves in.  At that point, it's clear that in situations involving life and death decisions, the autocratic style of Vostrikov has some distinct merits.  As I noted in a previous post, there is no time for a leader to make everyone feel good or to consider everyone's preferences when a decision must be made to sacrifice some crew members to save the majority (to repair the nuclear reactor, some crew members must receive a fatal dose of radiation).

In situations where the leader is much more experienced and knowledgeable than subordinates, the autocratic approach may be the best choice.  That's clearly the case with Vostrikov......and this military scenario.  He knows what is required and the consequences; for himself and the crew.  He's prepared to go down with the ship if necessary, and expects the crew to be similarly prepared to make sacrifices for the mission.

We can consider a more familiar situation of a laboratory with a PI leading a research group composed of less knowledgeable students, post-docs, and technicians.  It may not be a life or death setting, but the element of differential expertise is the same, as is the requirement to follow protocols and the need to make critical decisions that will determine success or failure of the group.

Many PIs rule their research groups in much the same way as Vostrikov handles the submarine crew.  This type of leader makes decisions alone, without input from the group, and only shares those decisions when the time is right.  The PI is the most experienced, usually, and fully aware of all aspects of the research program as well as budget and other administrative concerns and, therefore, is the person most qualified to make key decisions.  This reasoning is certainly justified when there is a large gap in expertise between the leader and team members.

The autocratic leader is focused on the task, not the morale of the group, and often demands that subordinates function at their best at all times and be willing to sacrifice to accomplish their goal.  This type of leader assumes that anyone choosing such a career is prepared to make sacrifices.  The task-oriented leader holds team members responsible for mistakes and immediately takes steps to ensure that the mistake is not repeated.  Such leaders typically are hard-driving individuals who demand the same effort from their group as they do of themselves.

Are such autocratic, task-oriented leaders popular with their team? Probably not.  Being task-oriented focuses attention on the bottom line, rather than on the immediate welfare or preferences of subordinates.  However, that is perhaps not the right question.  Are such leaders successful?  Are they popular with their superiors?  Definitely.  They produce results and make their superiors look good. This usually means more resources and support from the organization, which leads to job stability and a better working environments for the team.  Producing high-quality results leads to recognition and more resources (grants). In the long-run, the task-oriented leader ensures that the group succeeds; everyone reaps the benefits. 

In Vostrikov's case, the crew members eventually recognize that his leadership saved their lives and that had he not pushed them to the limits and demanded the best out of them, all would have been lost. Even Polenin ultimately acknowledges Vostrikov's leadership in crisis and joins the crew in supporting the decisions he made.

However, there is a point during the crisis when some of the officers, incensed over Vostrikov's demanding behavior, decide to mutiny.  They dislike Vostrikov, think he is making bad decisions and is going to sacrifice the crew.  They've been trained by Polenin, who emphasized the welfare of the crew over other concerns, and are doing what Polenin would want, i.e., they are second-guessing.  Vostrikov also is partly to blame because he has not shared his views or thinking behind his decisions with the officers and crew.  So they've jumped to false conclusions: that he doesn't care about the crew, is only interested in his own glory, etc.  That's one downside to the autocratic approach.  When subordinates are not informed, they may not understand certain decisions and grumble.  If things go wrong, the followers are going to blame the leader.  Of course, they might do this with a more democratic leader, but there will likely be more sympathy for the leader and an inclination to acknowledge their own roles in any failure of the group, if they understand the reasons behind key decisions. 

As I said in the previous posts, the movie exaggerated some aspects, and the diametrically opposed leadership styles may have been somewhat contrived.  For me, that was not a negative.  I thought the exploration of leadership (also, the meaning of bravery) was interesting and added an intriguing dimension to the story.

What lesson can we take from this discussion?

Well, we can see that there are advantages and disadvantages to both the democratic/communal and the autocratic/task-oriented type of leadership.  There are specific circumstances in which each approach is the better choice.  As I pointed out in the previous post, the democratic style probably isn't the best choice in a military situation, but instead works best for a leader when team members are all highly skilled, are capable of making good decisions, and where the mission depends on creative and original contributions from the group.  Where there is a big discrepancy between the expertise of the leader and subordinates, the autocratic style may be preferable.  Success is not guaranteed, of course.  In both cases, either style can work as long as things are going smoothly.  However, when a crisis strikes, things can go haywire quickly--as depicted in K-19.

There is a third type of leader, not depicted in the movie, known as the laissez-faire or free-rein leader.  This type of leader basically leaves the team to their own devices to decide how to do their work.  One might say that this type of leader does not really lead.   

So, which type of leader are you (or do you aspire to be) and why?  Is this something you are concerned about (or do you think it's not worth worrying about)?  Do any of these leadership styles pose special issues for female leaders?


Photo Credit: Still image from K-19: The Widowmaker