For a long time, I thought my colleagues exaggerated when they talked about some of the women leaders they had the misfortune of working under. They described abrasive leadership styles that, instead of eliciting cooperation and loyalty, turned employees off. Then I ran into a person who fit every stereotype of the woman leader that I fight so hard against. But, with plenty of great women leaders, you might ask, why should we focus on the few who are not so great? Because, whether we like it or not, women leaders are still a minority, and, as such, the missteps of one tend to affect the brand of the entire group. Just ask African Americans, Latinos or Jews about the ripple effect that a bad apple has on the reputation of the group as a whole.
Not so hot leadership styles
After weeks of volunteering my time to help a friend organize a fundraiser to benefit an organization she supports, we were going nowhere. Every time we got a leading professional to donate his or her services for an auction, the CEO of the organization (let’s call her Jen) would change things around without notifying anyone involved. As the date of the event approached, my friend and I started to receive daily calls and emails from our professional colleagues who so generously had accepted our pleas to offer their services for free. They didn’t understand why their services were not listed on the event’s website, why the amount of consulting hours being auctioning was different from what they had committed to, or why they had been taken out of the event all together.
After one too many unilateral change, I sent an email to Jen expressing how unprofessional this back and forth made us all look in the eyes of our contacts, only to receive in return a scolding letter on which she cc’d six other people. Needless to say, I was flabbergasted. I admit I had it coming. I should have called her to begin with, instead of putting words to the proverbial paper.
The incident left me wondering, why do some women leaders exhibit leadership styles that are obviously unproductive? Leadership styles that, rather than project power, play to the stereotype of “the woman who undermines the power of other women.”
But the better question might be: Should we confront these women leaders with their misbehavior, or should we avoid them and move on? It’s no easy task to approach any powerful leader for a conversation about their leadership style shortcomings, but, in cases like the one in my example, not doing so carries an even greater risk – The perpetuation of the undeserved stereotype that women are not suited to lead. That all women leaders miss the mark.
Standing up for more great women leaders
The truth is that we are joined together in the guardianship of the brand “woman leader.” The success of one is the hope for all. By the same token, the failure of one impacts us all. So, as painful and difficult as it is, we must have these courageous conversations with our gender-mates when they are called for. They should be held in private and conducted diplomatically in order to avoid eliciting a negative reaction. But avoiding the discomfort (not to mention the potential rage our words might elicit) will only hold us back on our quest to see more great women leaders at the helms of our organizations.