iron ladies

Taking Off Our Glasses: A Leadership Lesson

I’ve worn glasses for a long time. I think I got my first pair when I was three, or at the latest, five. I’ve worn them for so long that I often forget I’m wearing them.

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I suffered from depression for six years. Everything felt so dark and hopeless, like wearing a pair of sunglasses that could never come off. I couldn’t imagine that life could look any differently.

I think how we see and engage in leadership is not so different from these experiences. We become saturated in a single perspective and we cannot imagine it could look another way. We do not even realize we are wearing glasses. So, we continue thinking and operating with a narrow, anemic perspective, believing that’s all there is. Maybe we find mentors, read books, go to conferences, or take courses. Seemingly we are engaging in good things and becoming better leaders. But all of these things are the same colour as our glasses so that we are never challenged. If something different does manage to break in, the threat of the anomaly is quickly quenched. To reference Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a popular Nigerian author and speaker, there is great danger to a single story.

Most of what I have seen, read, and experienced regarding leadership is from a white, Western, male perspective. This is not a bad nor a wrong perspective, but if it becomes my only set of glasses, then it is incomplete. Some time ago I came across Next Leadership. It’s a UK-based organization founded by Kate Coleman. Not only is she a woman, but she was also born in Ghana, and has been a pioneer for women in leadership in a number of areas. Her book ‘the 7 Deadly Sins of Women in Leadership’ was the first book I ever read on leadership by a woman. For the first time in my life, I saw a different perspective on leadership, and discovered well articulated, unique challenges for women in leadership.

A number of months ago, I found another book on sale: ‘Dare Mighty Things: Mapping the Challenges of Leadership for Christian Women’ by Dr. Halee Gray Scott. This was my second book on leadership by a woman. Both Coleman and Scott recognize that from the outset, many women are disqualified for leadership based on their gender, especially as it relates to specific theologies among Christians. However, they write presuming (and presuming correctly) that women do have leadership gifts and are already leading in all kinds of arenas. Through these books, I began to see more of my glasses.

One particular aspect stuck out to me from Scott’s book. In her studies, she focused her thesis on perceptions of female leaders serving in para-church ministries. She discovered one of the unique challenges for women in para-church leadership (and likely in Christian leadership in general), was the discrepancy between how good women were perceived compared to how good leaders were perceived.

When women display the desirable leadership traits – confident, competent, assertive, and bold – they cease to be viewed as warm and caring and are instead perceived as tough, aggressive, and domineering. This creates a double bind, because if women act in ways consistent with gender stereotypes, they are not viewed as competent leaders, but if they act in ways consistent with good leaders, they are not liked. In political circles, these women are called ‘iron ladies’. (p.107)

Scott adds, “since perceptions of female leaders strongly correlate with perceptions of successful leaders, but greatly contrast with perceptions of women in general, it means that Christians view female leaders as exceptions to the rule” (p.115). From my own experience, her research results¬†ring true. I’ve had to decide that I will use my gifts and pursue my calling regardless of how favourably people view me, as a woman or as a leader. More women than I can count have told me they could not do what I do. This could be true, since we are all given different gifts and abilities (1 Cor. 12). However, even those that could lead likely believe it is not possible. Scott concludes, “whether we like it or not, we do not think a woman can be both a good woman and a good leader” (p.107). We lose out on capable leaders because many women consider this price too high to pay, and choose instead to act in ways that will gain them social acceptability as a woman.

How can we move forward? The first step is to realize the danger of a single story about leadership, and have the courage to seek out other perspectives. Imagine you actually are wearing a pair of glasses, and that leadership can look differently than you may have believed until now. With your new and evolving viewpoint, challenge others to see beyond what’s right in front of them. Use whatever privilege you have to encourage people, especially women, to pursue leadership in ways that are unique to them. Whatever you do, refuse to let a single story dominate the leadership landscape.

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