What is leadership for? Most of the time, I suggest, it is about dealing with people’s anxiety. And because of the uncertainty, complexity and pace that the 21st Century brings us, it could be that in C21L terms, this anxiety is getting bigger. In 1933, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt said ‘We have nothing to fear except fear itself.’ Could this be truer than ever?
To help us look at this, I want to return to a favourite issue of mine: gender and leadership. According to Mary Pritchard, Psychology Professor at Boise State University in the US, there is a reason why women aren’t perceived as capable as leaders as men: it is because they are ‘biologically motivated to avoid conflict’.
The basic arguments for biological sex differences in leadership ability go like this: From birth, baby girls are more focused on other people’s faces, and in particular seek signs of approval. This innate gender difference increases as girls hit puberty and the hormones estrogen and oxytocin flood their systems. Teenage girls are more concerned with relationships than are teenage boys, and tend to seek out others in times of stress as a way to decrease fear. As a result, girls are biologically motivated to avoid conflict at all costs. - Mary Pritchard, Psychology professor, Boise State University.
As Mary Pritchard points out, of course, all of this is dependent on how you define leadership, and it could be that women do an awful lot of emotional leadership, behind the scenes, mopping up the relationship mess left by the heroic men. But this also leads us to a significant conclusion – whatever we think leadership really is, a lot of the time, we see it as a salve against our anxiety. By being more emotionally present and negotiable, women are less likely to be strident and dogmatic. ‘Thank goodness’, you might say. Yet I’d argue your unconscious bias will be to see this as a sign of weakness in a leader. Our unconscious, fearful self likes our leaders to be strident and dogmatic.
Now this isn’t a particularly new proposition, but it is striking that despite all of our efforts over the past few years since the sexual revolution, women are still overwhelmingly under-represented as leaders, at least officially. Is our stubborn reluctance to accept women’s leadership a sign of how deep this anxiety about uncertainty really goes? The alternative is that it is just about prejudice. I do think there are people who maybe simply prejudiced against women in this way, but the extent of this phenomenon suggest its real causes may run a lot more deeply, and in most, if not all of us. Could it be we are reluctant to see women as leaders to do with our perception of who might help us best through the anxiety of uncertainty?
It isn’t even that men have done a particularly good job if you look at the history of leadership, but then there is the striking research that Dan Gardener points to in his book ‘Future Babble’: what most appeals to us in experts isn’t their rightness, it is their clarity. We like our leaders projecting certainty and strength, even if they are persistently proved wrong. Men are just better bullshiters. We’d rather be lead by bad, clear certain-sounding men than any number of clear, emotionally intelligent, women. This shows how far we will go to assuage our fears. This shows how fearful we really are.
So let’s stop and think about it. Consider this idea: Leadership isn’t primarily about strategy, vision, expertise, customer centricity, politics or culture. Of course all of these things matter, but only in the service of its primary purpose: Leadership is primarily about managing fear. Our own, and others. And in the 21st Century, this fear is getting worse.
So what can we do? I’d suggest that our main job in nurturing the conditions of a more enlightened organisational culture will be mostly about learning to deal with fear – ourselves and others. It will be about letting go; about being prepared to lose things; to let them flow through our lives, without trying to hold on. It will be about learning to be care-less, whilst still being wholehearted. Imagine being completely committed to something whilst at the same time being truly prepared to let it go. A hard art to master? Elizabeth Bishop suggests that this isn’t as hard as we might think:
One Art by Elizabeth Bishop
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.