Why Being a Leader Doesn’t Have to Mean Acting Like a Man?

By Zoë Randolph, GC4W Thought Leadership Contributor

For years longer than I’d like to admit, I prided myself on my ability to be one of the guys. And while acting like a teenage boy, for better or for worse, didn’t require me to go particularly far out of my way, my mistake was rooted in thinking that my personality had value because it was male-like, rather than because it was my own.

I’m hardly the first woman to see alignment with traditionally male traits as something worth advertising. Queen Elizabeth I, one of history’s most able monarchs, took great pains throughout her reign to distance herself from her gender. “I know I have the body but of a weak, feeble woman,” she once told assembled English troops. “But I have the heart and stomach of a king.”

Embracing Your Feminist Instincts

While we may now shake our heads at Elizabeth’s lackluster feminist instincts, her calculation was a reasonable one, and one many women still make today. It’s not news to any of us that men have dominated and defined Western (and most) cultures for the overwhelming majority of human history. Nor is it a surprise to hear that, as a result, to be male-like has been to have value, at least when it’s come to wielding political power, advancing scientific thinking, writing books, making art, or generally being taken seriously.

The truth of this preference for male behavior has stubbornly persisted despite advancements in equality, encouraging generations of women well beyond Elizabeth’s time to model themselves after men—or rather, after the dominant value structure. We’ve thus been baited into equating success with proving that women can do anything men can, and do it like a man. This sentiment has bled into all sorts of cultural phenomena: shoulder pads, the Lean-In movement, and more, all of which have centered on the basic concept that to survive in a man’s world, we have to be more like men.

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It’s Time to Shape those Norms Ourselves

To some extent, this theory isn’t wrong. Change rarely comes from the outside, and marginalized groups nearly always have to mimic first, in order to gain a foothold and can begin to shape their own norms. But its persistence is troubling. It’s high time we start to shape those norms ourselves and embrace that many traits commonly associated with women aren’t impediments to be overcome: They’re what make us good at what we do.

Taking caution, for instance. Generally speaking, higher levels of testosterone correlate with greater tendency toward risk-taking. In much of the business world, such an approach is celebrated as necessary for success. You have to bet big to win big, after all. Startup founders and businessmen across the world are praised for their fearlessness, for jumping in without a roadmap and betting on themselves.

And while this kind of self-confidence, however misplaced, is often an ingredient of large-scale success, it’s more often a recipe for less success. Take investing. Data found by Fidelity found that its women investors routinely outperform their male counterparts. The reason? They trade less. Their caution, often decried as the kind of approach that gets you nowhere, is their unintentional weapon. On the other hand, more bullish investors (more often men) who trade aggressively based on either a lack of fear or an unfounded belief in their own ability, get bupkis for all their action. In fact, they lose money.

Women are More Effective as Leaders

When it comes to business, too, women are routinely found to be more effective leaders, despite the fact that they make up just 8% of Fortune-500 CEOs and serve as Head of State in just ten countries. As someone who’s been led, professionally, by both men and women, this hardly surprises me: Without exception, the women I’ve worked under have listened more and talked less; they have taken more time to think through hard decisions; they have valued knowledge and skill over bravado. The very traits that women are often told to stow away if they wish to advance up the corporate ladder (Speak more aggressively! Forget about emotional intelligence!) are the very things that inhibit the abilities of our male counterparts.

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It’s time we stop equating the oversaturated presence of men in positions of authority with the idea that they attained those positions through skill alone. Benefiting off the back of inequitable systems, after all, is hardly the same thing as being deserving of those benefits. Rather than asking, “How can I be like those in power?” I hope future generations ask, “How is what I bring to the table better?”

About our thought-leadership contributor, Zoë Randolph.

Zoë Randolph worked in marketing for nonprofits and startups before becoming a full-time freelance writer and editor. She covers history, culture, travel, and career from her adopted home of Montréal, Quebec, where she pretends to understand French and enjoy winter. You can keep up with her at zoerandolph.com

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