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Would You Like Some Gender with that Leadership?

Harvard Business Review

The recent toppling of Australia's first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, continues to raise questions about women and leadership. Gillard was regarded as smart, capable and resilient. However, a string of bad decisions and broken promises had the public and politicians questioning her capacity to lead. In her final exit speech before Kevin Rudd took her place, Gillard responded to the "gender wars" discourse that had come to represent her leadership, saying that "the reaction to being the first female PM"—in other words, gender—did not explain everything nor did it explain nothing.


So, when do we know it's about the gender and not about the leadership? My research on women and leadership concluded that it was difficult to make any generalizations about women and leadership simply because there were so few women leading organizations. It was difficult to distinguish between the woman doing the leading and whether her manner of leadership was specifically her own or part of a gendered pattern of leading. To paraphrase Gillard, gender explained something about leadership but did not explain everything.


So what can help women leaders make the most of their own style of leadership? How to keep the focus on leadership, not gender? Here are three suggestions.


Understand the relationship of power to authority. Understanding the connection between power and authority means that you know that having power does not give you authority. With power, you can carry out your own will; with authority, your command will be carried out by others. Others need to respect the leader's power and her authority to lead. This is why women are divided over quotas and affirmative action. While these measures may elevate more women powerful positions, the perception is that they are somehow not deserving. In other words, power can be given, but authority has to be earned. Authority is a social relationship between the leader and followers. It requires consensus: mutual expectation and mutual recognition. A legitimate rise to power carries with it the authority to lead. Because leaders need to achieve their power through their talent and through others' recognition of their talent, ensure you have the authority to lead.


Recognize that being first isn't always best. While "the first woman..." may be heralded as an achievement for womankind, this may not be for the longer term good. As the saying goes, you only get one chance to make a first impression; therefore, while some women may be given opportunities to lead and create a historical moment, they need to determine whether being first will enhance or detract from their leadership. Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer lead dynamic, diverse, and creative organizations that rely on the next new thing. They have an integral understanding of their organization and the need to update and innovate. Their leadership is suited to the context. Many younger women are well qualified, well connected, and have enough determination to lead, yet they may be missing the key ingredient that will enhance their leadership: wisdom. Wisdom means having advanced levels of cognitive, reflective, and affective capacity, and these factors have a positive effect on followers. The beginning of wisdom is to make a personal assessment of the leadership role in context. Is wisdom a hidden asset in the job? If so, then it may be wiser to wait for the next opportunity to lead.


Make sure you have sufficient resources and support. In their research on the glass cliff phenomenon, Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam identified the tendency to appoint women leaders in times of crisis but also showed a pattern of these women leaders inevitably failing. Further analysis showed that the failure was not because of the leadership itself, but rather because the leadership was under-supported and under-resourced. With limited resources and support, women leaders desperately try to implement their strategic vision for renewal—but they inevitably fail as their vision and strategy cannot be implemented. An important lesson for any woman taking a leadership appointment is to ensure that you have the resources and support that you need to make it work; without them, your leadership will be precarious and likely to fail.


Leadership requires certain conditions to flourish, under which women—and men—can make good leaders. As more women take up the challenges of leadership, to avoid the gendered stereotyping of their leadership, they need to have the authority and wisdom to lead, and all the resources and support necessary for leadership.

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