Could I Pick YOU Out of a Leadership Lineup?

Friday, March 14th, 2014

Warning: This blog post makes blatant use of leadership gender stereotypes. Read at your own risk!

I have led several recent conferences, involving clusters of congregations coming together to explore leadership in large congregations. In these settings there are typically ten to fifteen congregations represented. Each congregation brings a table full of staff leaders.

I often engage in a mind game at these gatherings. (Oh dear, now I’m letting you into my own twisted mindset.) I like to see if I can guess the identity of the “head of staff” at each table, by the first work break of the day. I don’t allow myself to look at name tags or titles. I simply watch the behavior of the table, to see if I can identify the person who has been put in charge.046-wholeader-abc

This is what I’m paying attention to. I’m observing, from afar, the power dynamics at work in the room. Who is deferring to whom? Who seems to draw and command attention? Who seems to be taking the lead in framing conversations and directing workflow? It is not just about who is doing the most talking. It is more about personal presence.

Here is my troubling observation. I have about a 90% accuracy rate with picking out the head of staff at the table, when the head of staff is male. I almost always nail it within the first hour of the conference. My accuracy rate when the head of staff is female is much, much lower. Probably only about 25%! I generally pick out some other person at the table as the authority figure. I’m often surprised later to learn the identity of the real head of staff.

So, what’s going on here, ladies? Is it me; is it you…or something else at work in the room? Am I just terrible at identifying effective female leadership? I hope not. I make my living at developing leaders. I regularly advocate on behalf of female leadership. But, perhaps I have an unidentified prejudice against female leadership styles, one that prevents me from appreciating feminine behavioral patterns? If so, I’m willing to be called out on this.

Here is what I see happening when it is easy to pick out the head of staff. The leader projects a quiet, but certain sense of being in control. She is visibly invested in the conversation of others, making full eye contact, and encouraging full participation through her body language. When he intervenes in the flow of conversation, it is generally to redirect or reframe the conversation, to correct a piece of misinformation that has entered into the dialogue, to offer a perspective that is not being represented in the discussion, or to invite the participation of a silent member. It is leadership behavior that is quite evident from an outside perspective. It is an active set of behaviors.

What am I seeing at the tables where it is not easy to identify the “head of staff”? I believe what I am seeing is a mistaken attempt at collaborative leadership. From an observer perspective, it looks a lot like passivity. And the designated authority figure is often female. I see a meeker, less assuming presence; a reticence about stepping in too quickly, a willingness to let things play out without intervention and course correction. While the assigned authority figure passively waits for collaboration to emerge of its own accord, there is usually some vocal member of the table sucking up all of the airspace, with less than helpful leadership behaviors.

Truly collaborative leaders actively work to build a deep influence reservoir, a solid power base. They use all of the granted and assigned authority available to them. They direct the flow of information, decision making and resource allocation. They hone their personal expertise to deepen the reservoir even further. They cultivate referent power, building a charismatic presence. And then, they use this considerable influence reservoir to create and nurture a culture of collaboration. They dedicate their power base to serve the common good of the congregation. Collaborative leadership requires a very active presence in the organization. It is not at all passive.

Many women have come to see stereotypical male leadership as arrogant. We see it as demanding, authoritarian and self-serving. We are convinced there are better ways to lead. However, let us be careful that while avoiding an authoritarian leadership style, we don’t abdicate the personal power needed to cultivate collaboration. A disempowered leader cannot invite collaboration. We are only free to build a culture of collaboration after we have demonstrated the artful and integrity-filled use of power. We are only free to delegate and share power with others, once we have proven ourselves trustworthy with the use of power.

And now you know, the next time we are in a room together I’ll be watching for an active female presence. Let’s step it up and demonstrate that we can master the artful use of power, without abandoning or compromising our collaborative spirits.