by Valencia Ray, M.D.
Women do have an advantage in leadership style in today’s workplace, not simply because we are women, but more so because “heart” behavior, such as showing another person empathy or exercising better listening skill is becoming more socially acceptable as exemplary leadership behavior. Yet, do not men have a “heart” as well? Judy B. Rosener in the Harvard Business Review article “Ways Women Lead” postulates that characteristics generally considered to be “feminine” accounts for why women are succeeding in the 21st century workplace. “Macho male” leadership styles tend to lead to disengagement in today's world.
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Let me be explicit here for a moment. While I know that our language implicates “feminine” as being only of the female or woman, I find it striking that the functional qualities of our right-brain parallel qualities that our language defines as feminine or female. Yet, human beings – men included – have a right-brain hemisphere. Perhaps we need to rethink the etymology of “feminine” and realize that with the clearer understanding of the roles of the brain hemispheres, our tendency to define behavior along gender lines may be antiquated. Our brain capabilities give us the ability to act as we need to in order to evolve and adapt to our environment. Could it be that we have artificially segmented and categorized behaviors unwittingly according to gender, when really it is culture that has determined what is “feminine” versus “masculine” behavior? That true biology as related to the physiology of our brain has much greater flexibility than this?
For the sake of males who are leaders in today’s world where empathy is valued, I would think that looking at behavior based upon our brain’s ability to respond should supersede outdated definitions that connect behaviors along gender lines. Empathy is a human quality that can be cultivated, not a limited-to-gender quality. Perhaps we can start to recognize that our left-brain and right-brain contain functional qualities that can help us on an individual basis as needed, instead of pegging behavior into gender role-playing. Enough said; something to think about.
The opportunity for leadership development is to allow each individual human being social access to their whole brain as needed, and as uniquely expressed by their unique personality. I believe it is fear and the need to conform that is at the root of so many people’s behaviors, with the pressure to conform to gender stereotypes being one of the most pervasive in our workplaces. One’s behavior may not even feel like authentic expression to him or her. I know; I’ve been there, and I am still growing in self-knowledge. Learning never ends. When I was a “command-control” leader, I felt like a fake, though I would not have admitted it. I was hiding my fear behind aggression, which is a common phenomenon. In light of this, I am drawn to the words of Shawn Anchor, a Harvard researcher, taken from his book, The Happiness Advantage:
Happiness is not the belief that we don’t need to change; it is the realization that we can.
Men who reject empathy and other “right-brain” related traits and continue to push women into gender conformity boxes are cutting off their noses to spite their faces. Think of the word right-brain and the word “heart” as interchangeable. Men have access to “right-brained” styles, but they tend to under-develop them. Recall the concept of neuroplasticity. We need to reframe the connotation of the word “heart” because the right-brain is critical to innovation and creativity. Currently we stereotypically attribute the word “heart” only to females in its connotation. Again, do men also have a right-brain? The brain can adapt and, quite frankly, some men’s authentic personality is more prone toward these “heart-centered” traits, if the truth were told.
More often than not, the brain is performing as programmed. This prompts us as leaders to change the conversation from one that constantly compares women with men as if their biological sex is responsible. Continuing this old conversation only helps to sustain the “battle of the sexes,” which does not serve organizations or society and is now, in fact, limiting our progress as a whole. This kind of conversation also avoids a critical reality: when made self-aware, both women and men can change. This is good news to those who are willing to embrace change and evolve. This is not about “fixing” our self; it is about learning and growing to reach more of our true potential.
In fact, our inclination to cling to stereotypical role-playing models based on gender is at the heart of many of our leadership woes. For example, men limit their leadership ability by clinging to the belief that they must be stoic and repress their sense of empathy and connection to others. This type of behavior limits heart engagement and the ability to inspire others. There is new research demonstrating that men indeed show signs in early childhood development and into adulthood that they have equal ability to access empathy. Women who believe the “woman’s place” is to remain in the background are not very likely to assert themselves when needed, or to voice their authentic opinion without fear of rejection. Needless to say, the ability to navigate change in organizational culture is limited by this type of behavior on the part of the leader. Both of these socially perpetuated behaviors tend to be unconsciously conditioned in us as children and in social contexts, and there is now new, compelling research to support this claim. If we are all going to start performing at our best and living more passionate and fulfilling lives, we will need to move leadership beyond gender. What are your thoughts or experiences?
VALENCIA RAY, M.D. coaches and consults for organizations that want to help their leaders and teams perform at their very best. She also helps to restore vision by shining a light on the core issues that keep people from reaching their true potential. She is the author of, Leadership BEYOND Gender: Transcend Limiting Mindsets to Become a More Engaging Leader. To contact Valencia, visit her website at www.ValenciaRay.com.