We're Missing the Mark on Women in Leadership

I recently heard two separate interviews conducted by two well-known and respected business leaders. They both interviewed the same former team member of Google and Facebook on the topic of women in corporate leadership. The interviewee had spent over 15 years in the corporate technology world while hosting a women's leadership series as a passion project on the side. Both interviews started out on high notes with reasonable facts and appeals for more highly valuing women leaders in the workplace, however both began to descend into leadership perspectives I just couldn't bring myself to align with.

Let me start by saying, I actually think this corporate veteran and I have similar goals, and that is to draw people away from the shallow and power-driven construct of leadership and engage in a reframing of what empowerment means and what values ultimately matter in a leader. Her message is built on the premise that women who demonstrate softer traits such as empathy, collaboration, and good listening skills should be able to seek positions of corporate leadership and be valued the same as those who are competitive, aggressive, and bossy (her words). If you know me at all, you have to know I somewhat agree with this, although winsome, interpersonal qualities are not the only metric by which leadership is determined. We'll get to this.

In the end, I agree with a lot of the generic, jumping-off points from which her conversations start, but where our principles really begin to diverge is around her core belief that people—women in specific—should be awarded positions of leadership based solely on a track record of creative contribution and problem-solving. She believes they should be able to rise the ranks of an organization as strong, individual producers without the requirement of having to manage people.

In her staple story to illustrate this, she approaches her superiors at Google about the next level in her career and they tell her the position up actually requires her to lead a team. She's not happy about this and counters by saying, "I just want to solve bigger problems. I don't want to manage people." She continues, "[managing people] is not rewarding to me. [It] compromises my relationships, and I make less impact on the organization."

Here's the thing. Anyone who cherry-picks responsibilities to avoid stewarding the organization's most precious resource—people—is, by definition, not a leader. It is squarely within your rights to know your strengths and stay in your lane as a professional but know, there is no leadership without followers. Projects don't have leaders. Meetings don't have leaders. Finances don't have leaders. "Bigger Problems" don't have leaders. PEOPLE have leaders.

Don't forget that at the heart of every product, process, and system in your organization is PEOPLE. This means, dear aspiring leader, that your ambition to solve bigger problems will eventually reach its ceiling unless you’re willing to go beyond superstar producer, bring people into your purview, and live at the edge of potentially failing all along the journey of learning to lead them.

Back to the interview. She goes on to reveal what ultimately matters to her as she aspires toward leadership: "I didn't want to be a manager, but I did want to be recognized for my hard work. And I really wanted money, frankly, and lots of compliments. [Being] motivated by money and compliments sounds ridiculous, but a lot of women have told me that they feel similarly, and there's nothing to be ashamed of with that."

As she's unpacking this, she actually starts to become visibly uncomfortable at this point in the interview. There's a reason for this, and it's not because it's shameful; it's because it's convicting. Not everything in life we give ourselves to has a one-to-one return on it, so living by some arbitrary rule that your compensation must perfectly line up with your every investment will forever limit your impact. Sometimes, we have to courageously invest ourselves and be okay with its return coming at an indeterminate time, or you know, maybe never. But life is so much less fruitful when we allow our generosity to be jaded by the lack of immediate reciprocity. Leadership has and will always be a risk in this way, but you hold out hope that the latent reward is absolutely worth it.

It's just baffling to me that the business leadership and self-development community would publish an interview with all this at the heart of a "leadership" message, but that's neither here nor there.

Ultimately, our interviewee’s message has appeal because she hates the prevailing construct of corporate leadership that is driven by power over people, and so do I. But wanting leadership under the pretense of money and compliments is no different than those wanting leadership under the pretense of position and power. It's two sides of the same coin. The common denominator is that both seek to conveniently filter out the proper stewardship of people's hearts while only retaining what is personally beneficial about the position—compensation, praise, and status. In the end, it prioritizes self over others, and as someone who seeks to be a voice for effective leadership, I refuse to not respond to this.

Leadership is hard. Leadership is thankless. Leadership is lonely. Leadership isn't rising the ranks; leadership is a demotion. It's traveling down to the lowest levels of the organization because you know at your core that its foundation is strengthened by your servanthood and sacrifice. It is wholly concerned with unlocking the potential of others and understanding that helping others reach their life goals actually helps you reach and realize your own success.

If we truly want to see the soft and gracious attributes of women at the highest levels of leadership, let's not teach them to ask what's in it for them. Let's teach them to have the courage to see beyond their individual achievements, and leverage their strengths to unite teams, empower individuals, and liberate people into their greatest potential.

Courtney JemisonComment