We’re all familiar with the phrase “men are from Mars and women are from Venus.” In the business world, this has had unfortunate consequences for male and female leaders.
Male leaders were typecast as dominant competitors who played politics inside hierarchies and were great at leading with power, while female leaders were expected to understand connection and communication and lead people and teams better.
With this lens, the business world developed a whole theory of preconceived notions and biases about what to expect from men and women leaders. And like most assumptions, these supposed differences took on a life of their own. Over time, we became experts at typecasting people and, ultimately, shackling men and women to these stereotypes.
It’s time to put an end to this preoccupation with gender differences. It represents an old way of thinking and does a real disservice to both men and women.
Sure, there are differences between men and women. But I would argue that not all men exhibit what we’ve come to acknowledge as male leadership, and not all women exhibit what we’ve come to see as female leadership.
A whole new group of strong, competitive, and powerful women, and evolved, collaborative, and humane men walk the hallways of organizations every day across industries, sectors, and countries. And they come from every generation.
So why did we get so tripped up attributing certain qualities and stereotypes to men and women?
In 1996, I wrote a book called Leading People. At the time, I described “male” leaders (both men and women) as having certain strengths and weaknesses. Their strengths were that they set strong boundaries, assigned clear responsibilities and accountabilities, weeded out poor performers, and kept sensitive information confidential. But like all leaders, they also had vulnerabilities: They would isolate employees and departments; deter teamwork and collaboration; be stubborn, inflexible, and overly competitive; and discourage diversity, risk taking, and innovation. Back then, we questioned male leadership to the point where male bashing had become commonplace.
On the other hand, what we considered “female” leadership was increasingly praised as the leadership style of choice, and for good reason. Its strengths were that it enhanced teamwork, fostered accountability through peer pressure, encouraged innovation through collaboration, and promoted open communication, networking and learning. But this style of leadership had its challenges too: It blurred boundaries between people, was weak on accountability, encouraged complacency through lack of competition, and was preoccupied with process at the expense of results.
Stereotypes take a long time to die. A recent Gallup poll shows that 63% of Americans believe the country would be better governed by more female leaders.
When you look closely at the differences between “male” and “female” leadership styles, you can understand why people might think this way, especially in a world of complexity, increased transparency, and social networking.
If we look back 20 years and reflect on the evolution of both men and women, we can see that both “male leaders” and “female leaders” had a piece of the solution necessary for today’s workplace. Each brought a specific strength and vulnerability to our current understanding of great leadership.
Today, we really don’t have a good word for this powerful combination of “male” and “female” leadership styles, though I like to refer to these leaders as “grounded leaders” who are masters at cultivating six personal forces:
To grounded leaders, leadership is personal, and they understand that who you are drives what you do. They are simply grounded human beings.
It’s taken us 20 years to observe this continuing evolution among men and women. To borrow another often-used phrase, both men and women are “leaning in” to their new, more integrated selves. Today, we find the most effective leaders bring out the best qualities, which we’ve traditionally associated with either men or women. We now know these qualities need not be mutually exclusive.
Imagine if we could develop more men and women who are truly grounded in their leadership roles. They would be more self-aware and emotionally mature, collaborative and communicative, and comfortable assuming and sharing their power. More people would be inspired, organizations would be healthier and higher performing, and the world of business would be a much better place to spend time.
—Bob Rosen is founder and CEO of Healthy Companies International and author of the New York Times Best-Selling book Grounded: How Leaders Stay Rooted in and Uncertain World (Jossey-Bass, 2013). He is an internationally recognized psychologist and trusted global CEO advisor.