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Leveraging the Energy of Genders: Betty Ann Heggie Newsletter
February 9, 2011
Leadership Prejudices: 'Me Tarzan, You Jane'


One of the things preventing women from assuming more positions of leadership is society's prejudice against the natural attributes of feminine energy. It’s a kind of ‘Me Tarzan, You Jane’ approach.

We believe solid leadership means taking control and giving direction from the top of the hierarchy, as masculine energy is known to do. They just grab that vine and start swinging around the jungle!

This Tarzan-type leader commands the centre of attention and swoops in to save everyone below. 

There is, however, a different kind of leadership, which delegates responsibility and encourages a diversity of opinions. This kind of leader is more likely, shall we say, to share access to the vines, discuss which vines are good for swinging and which ones are not so good.

This is much more typical of feminine energy. It facilitates thinking, speaking and empowers teams to find their own solutions.

Both kinds of leadership are important and there is a place for each. The problem is that we have come to believe there is a "one size fits all" approach to leadership. We’ve endorsed the Tarzan stereotype while discounting feminine energy leadership.

The Quiet Leader

A recent study in Harvard Business Review supports the hidden advantages of the quiet boss. Research shows the extrovert may be perceived as being a better leader, but in many cases the introvert may be more effective. 

The reason, the authors say, is that extroverted bosses like to take over the whole operation. And, when proactive workers offer suggestions, they feel threatened. 

Meanwhile, a quiet boss will listen carefully and be receptive to workers' ideas. This validates employees and motivates them to work even harder. 

The study found extroverted bosses had their best results with compliant workers who simply did what they were told.

But when the workers offered suggestions or introduced new ideas, the introvert leaders ended up with increased productivity while the extroverts failed to do as well. 

In spite of this, conventional wisdom supports dominant and outgoing bosses, giving them preference when making hiring or promoting decisions. In fact, in a survey of senior corporate executives, 65 percent viewed introversion as a barrier to leadership opportunities. 

Other studies show that extroverted political leaders (such as JFK and Martin Luther King, Jr.) are more highly regarded because they are seen as "take charge" men of action. 

But consider the victories of more facilitative leaders from history such as Gandhi or Abraham Lincoln, men who practiced a more reserved, quiet approach to getting the job done. 

Once again, neither is wrong - it is just a different approach for different circumstances. 

This serves as a good reminder that we need to evolve our definition of leadership to include a diversity of styles and approaches. In doing so, we can challenge our narrow and stereotypical idea of what leadership is.

Mentoring New Leaders

I've been thinking a lot about this as I work with women who are part of a mentorship program that I sponsor at our university. Some, like me, have copious amounts of masculine energy. They are natural extroverts and quick to make decisions and delegate responsibility.

Others are more introspective. They are better listeners and open to lots of discussion before concluding a plan. Each of these women is a focused individual who has real value to contribute as they assume leadership positions. I'd like to see every one of them have an opportunity to serve.

Their success will depend on how others perceive them, how they perceive themselves and how well they match their energies to the situations they are presented with. 

A Word to the Wise

Harvard Business Review also notes, "While it's often true that extroverts make the best bosses and empowered employees make the best workers, combining the two can be a recipe for failure."

Each of us, regardless of our gender, need to be open to accepting the leadership styles of both masculine and feminine energy. Not all men exhibit extroverted masculine energy, just as not all women demonstrate introverted feminine energy. 

If we can develop both energies we can be both kinds of leaders and choose the right style for the situation. We can eliminate leadership prejudice and open the field for all of us to demonstrate our leadership capabilities.

Betty Ann Heggie
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