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Why We Need More (Women) Leaders

Harvard Business Review

There's been a lot of talk this past year about why more women don't become leaders. About what our society needs to change to produce more female leaders. There's even been some discussion about why women are better leaders than men in some arenas.

Often overlooked is this basic reality: what the world needs is more leaders, of whatever gender or any other characteristic. We need more leaders at every level in every kind of organization — businesses, government, schools, neighborhood and professional associations, unions, religious entities, and charitable institutions.

With change, crisis, and complexity coming at us faster and faster from all directions, we dare not depend on just a few to lead us and we dare not eliminate any group of people from the opportunity to lead others to a better future.

John Kotter defines leadership as "creating a vision of the future and strategies for producing the changes needed to achieve that vision; aligning people around the vision; and motivating them to overcome barriers and produce the changes needed to achieve the vision."

How many people acting in these ways does the world need?

Millions.

And they need to come from everywhere.

In today's organizations, we need to unlock the leadership potential within so those who want to lead, get to. From the senior information technology official who knows that her department can be a better partner for the business, to the first-shift line worker really irritated that her shift can't seem to match the productivity of the third shift, we have seen that under the right circumstances, leaders will step forward to make a difference.

What are the right circumstances?

A culture where the vision for the future is clearly understood throughout the organization. A culture where people are invited to step forward to help advance the vision in small and big ways. A culture where good-faith efforts that don't work out are seen as bigger barriers to tackle, or a reason to re-examine the goals, rather than as a failure that must be punished. A culture where transparency is the norm, barriers to progress are shared, and people are asked to help knock down those barriers. A culture where wins, both large and small, are widely celebrated. A leadership culture, where one seldom hears the phrases, "That's not your job," or "That's not my job."

The key is that women (and men) in position to influence others — either by virtue of the title they hold in an organization or because they have gained the necessary skills, insight and confidence — create the conditions under which many more people can and will lead within their broadly-defined spheres of influence. They encourage, promote, lay the groundwork for, communicate the need, celebrate steps along the way and otherwise create the conditions under which many more people can and will lead within their own spheres:

The first-shift line worker who tells her boss she needs to watch the third shift to find out what they are doing differently is leading.

Her boss who says, "Great, let me know what you find out," is leading.

The plant supervisor is leading when he celebrates the line worker's initiative and acts on the information she found.

And the COO is leading when she inspires others to action by telling the whole story throughout the company.

So yes, we need more women leaders. And men, too.

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