I asked on a LinkedIn post recently ‘How would you describe leadership?’ The words I got in response included; enabling, inspiring, self-awareness, humility, authenticity, transparency, resilience, supporting, helping, recognising, empowering, facilitating, influencing, understanding, and nurturing (Sterling, 2019). These words imply a human-centered interest in one’s followers. But as I traverse the world of practitioner discourse and academic research into leadership, I’m beginning to feel inclined towards framing leadership as a disembodied experience. One further disconnected from the human experience than encapsulating it. There are several different ways I see this happening and I’d like to invite you to question your own norms and assumptions as I explore these, as well as propose some areas that offer potential to re-imagine leadership more humanely.
This all starts with how we understand leadership and how we play to the power of that. There are many different interpretations and definitions. Asking that question I posed at the start of this post – ‘How would you describe leadership?’ – generated a broad range of answers. Leadership is less a thing that can be objectively described, like ‘water’ is ‘water’, but a subjective construct that is open to many different interpretations and enactments. We drift to what’s popular, what’s within our sphere of understanding, what feels a comfortable level of discomfort for us. But it’s as if the very complexity and fluidity of leadership leaves it more open to established and entrenched norms and assumptions dictating how we understand it. What we know rushes in to fill the gap of what we don’t.
So what are the norms and assumptions at the foundation of leadership? The big one is gender, and the stereotypes we are ‘captive’ to and complicit in. From an early age we perform the gender roles assigned to our bodies by identifying with a learned ideology, ‘girl’ or ‘boy’, and constantly creating ourselves in that image (see West & Zimmerman, 1987). We judge, and are judged by the labels and meanings attached to these bodies. Our own understandings, beginning with our first experiences, and developed over time. Our first encounter with leadership is via our parents; generally speaking the authoritarian father and the caring and nurturing mother (Sinclair, 2004). These are powerful constructs of self, and others that hold sway over us. Our ways of ‘being’ in this world are closely aligned with our need to be connected to other humans, to be seen, to belong. Our status as humans is called into question if we challenge norms. So, as Butler (2004) puts it, this means complying no matter how restrictive, debilitating or unrealistic these norms seem to be.
It’s in this humanness, our need to define our world by what is normal, that we subvert what makes us human; our bodies. We don’t ‘see’ humans anymore. We see a constructed ideology. One associated with leadership, and one associated with the appropriate genders of our leaders. These are overlapping constructs and have implications for the inclusion, or exclusion, of particular traits or behaviours. Critiques of the symbolism, undertone and focus of leadership revolves around a masculine narrative (see Sinclair, 2005; Ford & Harding, 2011; Ford & Harding, 2007; Nicholson & Carroll, 2013; and these are just what I’ve read so far!). When we ‘see’ leadership it’s generally a white man, poised in his power suit, or charismatically approachable with his open buttons and blazer. Ironically, men in leadership don’t get judged on their bodies but women do. Yet, we don’t ‘see’ leaders when women demonstrate behaviours that could be considered leadership if only we’d broaden our spectrum (Nixon & Sinclair, 2017). Where women are positioned as leaders, their contributions are undervalued even if they are creating economic value (Abdullah et al, 2016). Or they are more susceptible to harsh stereotyping or strict scrutiny that may affect firm performance metrics (Hoobler, et al, 2018). We have discomfort towards women with power (Nixon & Sinclair, 2017). Simply put a woman isn’t fitting into our normative understanding of her gender role, and what we imagine as leadership. She is penalised; not for what she does, but for what we believe.
So how would you describe a leader? Referring back to those words I used at the beginning; they are perfect, and perfectly aspirational. This beautiful manifestation of a leader knows themselves well enough to self-regulate and be true to the core to their values, preferences and emotions; they are able to connect with people, win acceptance, and know what to reveal to whom. They are inherently good, virtuous, with the utmost standards of moral leadership (Ford & Harding, 2011). We all want to be lead by a person like this. We may even want to be that person. This ideal has such a powerful hold on our consciousness. It’s certainly well intentioned. It plays to our desire to create a better world. But it’s the infallible allure of this, untouchability in its perfection, transcendence above the mere mundane ‘managers’ and ‘workers’, that positions leaders as above us mere mortals with our fallibilities and dark sides. It underscores the prevailing heroic, grandiose, ‘god-like’ archetype of leadership. And who do you picture when you read of gods? Leadership is simultaneously disembodied, above corporeal concerns, and masculine.
What are the options? Ignore gender in the embodiment of leadership? We’re supposedly on a level playing field after all. Gender equality and all that. But Kelan’s (2010) study of ICT workers is a nice illustration of the perils of ignoring gender, to the continual reinforcement of the dominant bodied norms. These workers insisted that the workplace was gender neutral. Yet this quote and summary illustrates the subtext: “one should not bring to the foreground that one is a woman” (Kelan, 2010; p. 184) and then there is no discrimination. In leaving bodies at the door, we robe ourselves in a masculine worker ideal disguised as gender equality. But on the flip-side, where femininity is addressed (in the neo-liberal / faux feminist agenda, see McRobbie, 2009) it acts as a safety net of feminine values as we negotiate power with men. Both a stepping forth into the workplace and an apology for doing so; ‘it’s ok, I’m just a girl’. Ignoring femaleness in favour of a dominant work ideology emphasises that being a professional is being a man. Yet, expressing feminine embodiment within a masculine work culture could do more to subvert bodies than triumph them. Gender equality is not sameness, a level playing field or an assimilation, but a fearless expression of human embodiment within a context where this is welcomed.
The presence of bodies, or lack thereof, remains an issue in the workplace. Women are still not making it into senior leadership positions, in fact the number in New Zealand is going backwards (Diversity Works, 2019). The bodies are simply not there. I am not proposing here that women necessarily have a better, or even different, way of leading (I might explore that in another post). But I invite you to question whether, in our quest for the ultimate, human, leader, we’ve made leadership an unattainable, disembodied concept? One that places women’s bodies as ‘other’ to the norm. Sinclair and Nixon (2017) suggest that being more anchored in our own bodies could consciously change our mindset towards ourselves and others influencing a leader’s capacity for openness and learning. And that bodies outside the norms, give greater opportunities to challenge them. Could registering feelings, including our dark sides, tensions and challenges; as well as embracing our messy, fleshy, corporealness, give us greater connection to our humanity and more ‘real’ forms of leadership? In my own research, I’m looking to explore whether embracing the embodiment, enactment and experience of being a mother could move leadership into a new conversation. One where real human bodies matter because they’re allowed to show up as such, not just as who we imagine them to be, or filtered by what we’re comfortable with.
So, if I can leave you with one more question; how would you describe the kind of leadership that makes you uncomfortable?
Abdullah, S. N., Ismail, K. N. I. K., & Nachum, L. (2016). Does having women on boards create value? The impact of societal perceptions and corporate governance in emerging markets. Strategic Management Journal, 37(3), 466–476. https://doi.org/10.1002/smj.2352
Butler, J. (2004). Undoing Gender. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203499627
Diversity Works. (2019). New Zealand Workplace Diversity Survey 2019.
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Sinclair, A. (2005). Body Possibilities in Leadership. Leadership, 1(4), 387–406. https://doi.org/10.1177/1742715005057231
Sterling, A. (2019, July 9). How would you describe leadership? LinkedIn Post. Retrieved July 16, 2019.
West, C., & Zimmerman, D. H. (1987). Doing Gender. Gender & Society, 1(2), 125–151. https://doi.org/10.1177/0891243287001002002