Imagine a Leader

November 2nd, 2006 by under Uncategorized. No Comments.

The first quarter ended last week, and two new classes started, Leadership and Marketing Management. Both classes focus on softer skills, and this is a relief after slogging through Managerial Economics and Financial Accounting for the past seven weeks. I’m curious to see how Professor Henry “Hank” Sims Jr. teaches leadership. As I wrote in an earlier post, the MBA is a life skills degree, and many of these skills cannot be taught in the classroom.

I believe most leaders are born with the charisma and passion to excite and organize, while other leaders learn to lead from experience and circumstance. In some cases, a leader is the person who is willing to take on the most responsibility in a group. And other times leadership is thrust on a person. For example, my friend who was a teacher at Montgomery Blair High School said she became a team leader because she left a meeting to go to the bathroom, and when she came back, everyone else had already elected her. This was a lucky bathroom trip; her leadership experience taught her a lot and helped her get into Harvard for graduate school.

Professor Sims started the first class in an unorthodox fashion by asking everyone to close their eyes and picture the word he said. First he said “elephant,” and I pictured those psychedelic dancing elephants from Dumbo. Then he said “water,” and I pictured dipping my hand in a running stream. Then he said “leader,” and I pictured a male military general.

Surprisingly, only three students (all of them women) pictured a female when Professor Sims said the word leader. One woman pictured herself, another woman pictured President Bush and mentally replaced the President with a generic figure of a female businesswoman, and the third woman, from Holland, pictured Queen Beatrix.

People put forth several interesting theories to explain why only three people envisioned females when asked to picture a leader. One student said that, for him, leaders signified power, and while there are many female leaders, powerful leaders are usually male military or political figures.

Another student said that people usually pictured offices first and then filled in the specific person. For example, when the professor said leader, many students pictured President Bush. If the president were a woman, many more people would have pictured a female. In a similar example, if the professor had asked us to picture a domestic maven, almost everyone would have thought of Martha Stewart. The most famous domestic maven is female, but a man could just as easily be a domestic maven. (There are several of them on the Food Network.)

Another theory put forth was that people expect leaders to be aggressive and assertive, and the words aggressive and assertive bring to mind strong men. An aggressive or assertive woman is more likely to be labeled a bit** than a leader. Some students also mentioned that women have not been allowed to fill leadership positions in the past, so there are fewer female leaders to imagine.

I kept trying to think of a famous female leader to look up to and emulate. The obvious names that came to mind I quickly discounted. I do not share Margaret Thatcher’s hard-nosed political style. Nancy Pelosi, Barbara Boxer, and Cynthia McKinney are strong female leaders, but I dislike the taint of Capitol Hill. Hillary Clinton is another obvious female leader, but she has given up too much to get where she is; I hardly wish to follow in her footsteps.

Carly FiorinaI tried to think of other female leaders throughout history: Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, Queen Elizabeth of England, Catherine the Great, Marie Curie, and Evita. Smith alumnus and former CEO of Hewlett-Packard Carly Fiorina is another female constantly mentioned at Smith. Oprah Winfrey, Mary Kay Ash, and Katherine Graham are other examples of amazing business women.

I decided to do some Internet research and found this great site, World Wide Guide to Women in Leadership, which lists women in political, military, and religious leadership positions around the world. After looking through the site, I realized that there was no excuse for not picturing a well-known female leader. There are powerful female political and military leaders around the world who are aggressive and assertive. Even when societal norms relegated women to the domestic arena, there were exceptional women leading nations, wars, political movements, and research.

The professor spent about an hour on this “imagine a leader” exercise, and as he was questioning each person on his or her thoughts, I decided that the exercise was a waste of time. But after some reflection, I realize that the exercise was actually very useful. Good leaders know themselves well and also recognize their followers’ strengths and weaknesses. The exercise revealed my subconscious bias and ignorance of female leaders. Recognizing these faults is the first step to becoming a better leader and more thoughtful person.