In the olden days (the sixties), we didn’t talk about leaders much. The topic didn’t come up on farms in southern Indiana where I grew up. If you’d have tried to bring up leadership in the Farm Bureau where the guys talked local politics, they’d have fallen silent, puzzled. If you’d tried to talk about female leadership characteristics, they’d have walked away. Our image of a leader in the news or from history was of a remote, fierce figure who awed his followers with his strength and technical prowess. He was always masculine and often militaristic. I would never have considered leadership in my future back then. Collaborator, partner, mentor—sure, but leader? That was a big word.
In retrospect, I was getting more leadership training than I realized. In one of the more surprising events of my childhood, I dimly recollect being pulled aside by the mothers of some kids in my 4-H club and told that I was being made president. Although this seems stunningly undemocratic now, I didn’t question the process but dully accepted this burden than I had not sought or contemplated. Much clearer in my mind is the symbol that they laid on me—the gavel. It was of brown wood, with a carved handle and a weighted hammer. Usually, I kept it in a shoebox in my closet, but I had to bring it to the meetings where it lay in front of me on the folding card table and marked me as different. I don’t recall ever pounding it—the craft-making girls and taciturn boys who raised pigs and calves in my 4-H club were not a rowdy bunch, but the gavel’s presence resonated with power that mostly made me uncomfortable. Even then, I knew that with power came responsibility. And maybe something else.
Flash forward fifty years, and things are a lot different. Leadership qualities are talked about so much, it’s as though we’re expected to exhibit them from Montessori school through the executive ranks to activism in our nursing home. Everyone is a leader now. And if there’s any detail that you have a lingering question about, there are a multitude of studies, articles, and books out there dissecting every little aspect of the topic down to the eyelash. We know about male and female leadership traits, transformational, transactional, situational—we’ve really cracked the code on this one, right?
Unfortunately, there’s one thing that hasn’t changed. People don’t like female leaders, and women know it. My unease with my gavel was nothing new, and it hasn’t gone away. We describe it more technical terms when we say that success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women. But it’s easy to spot if you just pay attention to the cracks that are made about Hilary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Madonna, Sarah Palin, Oprah—need I go on?
In The Discreet Guide for Executive Women, I describe this as the Executive Woman’s Dilemma—you must demonstrate good leadership characteristics to be successful, but if you do, you run the risk of releasing a harsh backlash. This is not an excuse for backing away however. Forewarned is forearmed. If you know that a promotion into senior ranks may generate some name-calling, you won’t take it personally. And there are ways through this thicket. With some help and experience, you won’t lose your confidence that you can be a good leader. In fact, you might even become a more natural and graceful leader in a corporate setting than your male peers. But you do have to give yourself a chance and pick up that gavel.
Copyright © 2012 Jennifer K. Crittenden
Published in the Florida Diversity Council Newsletter, Spring 2012