Are You Finding Your Leadership Voice?
The prevailing myth in much of the Western world, as well as in most developing countries, is that leadership is a man’s game, whether in politics or corporations.
Furthermore, in such countries as Australia, the United States, Canada, Great Britain and France, leaders have tended to be white, tall guys.
Bad habits are hard to break. Eliminating the myth that leadership resides at the top of organizations and bureaucracies, skewed heavily towards men, is a particular challenge.
Great Britain had one notable break with the leadership = males mindset: Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Love her or hate her, Thatcher was a polarizing figure during her 12 years as prime minister (1979 – 1990), the longest-serving prime minister in British history and its only female national leader. However, she introduced and saw through important changes in Great Britain, such as thwarting the straggle hold that unions had on government policy and budgets.
Canada’s only experience in its now 148-year history was Conservative Kim Campbell who took over from Prime Minister Brian Mulroney (1984 – 1993) in 1993. Campbell went down to blazing defeat in a national election less than five months later, the consequence of Canadians having soured on Mulroney during his two terms and Campbell’s ineptly run election campaign.
Australia’s first and only prime minister, Julia Gillard, rightly or wrongly, went through a brutal internal fight within her party, in which political knives covered her back. She served from 2010 to 2013.
Halfway around the world, Indira Gandhi was India’s only prime minister, its fourth (1966 – 1977), and who was assassinated on October 31, 1984. Next door in Pakistan, that country’s only female prime minister was Benazir Bhutto, who was elected in 1988 and served until corruption charges forced her from office in 1997. Years later in 2007, she returned from exile in Dubai to be granted amnesty. In December of that year she was assassinated in a car bombing at a political rally. Both Gandhi and Bhutto were strong national leaders who paid the price of being outspoken.
The corporate world has been especially regressive at advancing women into not just senior roles but notably those at the top. In the mighty United States of America, the percentage of women holding CEO positions is an outright embarrassment. The Standard & Poor’s ranking in 2015 shows a paltry 4.6% of women holding the position of CEO. Fortune.com tried to put lipstick on a pig by gleefully stating that the number of female CEOs in the Fortune 500 had leaped from 20 to 24 in 2014. This represented a measly 4.8% of all CEOs in 2014.
How about my home country, Canada? I may as well whack my fellow countrymen in the head for not getting it. Canada is not as open a society as the US, and keeping in mind it being a branch plant economy of its southern neighbor, the percentage of women CEOs in corporations is about the same. Add this statistic and the pain gets worse: In 2012 only one woman was on the list of the highest paid CEOs in Canada.
In the single word of former Saturday Night Live comedian Amy Poehler:
And for one final kick in the pants to all of us: The top 100 highest-paid CEOs in Canada now make, on average, $9.2 million—that’s more than 190 times the average Canadian income of $47,358.
But what about where leadership resides within organizations?
Let me provide just one small but powerful example.
I worked in Canada’s federal government for three decades. Two thirds of my career was in a small province on the East Coast (bordering my favorite state of Maine). During my most energizing years in the nineties, where my team of economists and I spent a lot of time meeting with employers, high school career counsellors and giving presentations to the public on careers, I also had the fortune to connect with the real people of a vast federal department. Donna was such a person.
I’d met Donna a few times. She was a programs officer in the small town of St. Stephen, New Brunswick (population 6,000) across the St. Croix River from Calais, Maine. Donna worked in what could be called the employment and unemployment insurance office. Her job was to be out in the community every day, talking to employers, community leaders and the general public. She was outgoing, knowledgeable and totally committed to her work to serve Canadians.
I was in St. Stephen for a presentation to business people and went for coffee with Donna. We were talking about leadership, an area of interest that Donna and I mutually shared. During our conversation, Donna made a comment that has stuck with me for some 20 years: “Jim, when I’m out in the community meeting with people, they see me as the face of the federal government.”
When I think of those words, they cut through all the hype in the leadership-management space. Whether you’re a lowly paid public servant working in a field office or a bank rep in a branch office or a call center agent, YOU are the FACE of that ORGANIZATION.
The big smucks at the top earning the disproportionate bucks, disconnected from reality and who frequently execute poorly conceived corporate strategies, are the ones in dire need of descending from 40,000 feet to ground level.
Combine this with the disrespect that is still prosecuted against women in the workplace and society and you have a recipe for corporate stagnation, defensive management routines against foreign competition and, in the end, impotent leadership. In short, the organization fails, or at least loses market share.
Reflect on these words by thought leader and author Sally Helgesen:
Your voice, your language, help determine your culture. And part of how a corporate culture is defined is how the people who work for an organization use language.
Take a moment to share your thoughts.
Ninety percent of this stuff is just not that serious; we just get crazy about it.
– Ursula Burns (CEO & Chair of Xerox, and first African-American woman to lead a Fortune 500 company)
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