Leadership revisited: from ruthless and reckless to thoughtful and wise

This week I finally had a chance to see the new documentary film that has a lot of people buzzing, MISSREPRESENTATION, written and produced by Jennifer Siebel Newsom.  The film clearly and graphically makes the argument that women are systematically objectified and dumbed down in the media, and that this is connected to the on-going gender disparity between men and women professionals.

Having taught women’s and gender studies classes for more than a decade, the film didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. But it presented the information in a slick, well-argued way that had the audience gasping, nodding and cringing by turns.

I was somewhat disappointed with the conclusion of the film, however, which mostly urged the audience to take personal action to challenge the misrepresentation of women in the media and in business and politics, and to personally resist social pressure on women to focus on how they look rather than how smart they are and what they do.

Yes, raising personal awareness and mounting personal resistance is important.  But what’s really needed is systemic change.

A great illustration of what I mean by systemic change came my way this morning through a New York Times reprint of a Reuters piece by Chrystia Freeland, “Cultural Constraints on Women Leaders.”

Freeland discusses a new study by University of Toronto business professors Soo Min Toh and Geoffrey Leonardelli, who asked a simple question: Why aren’t there more female leaders?

You can read the article yourself to find out more about how they answered the question.  What interested me most was the author’s conclusion: that even in societies that have been relatively open to women’s advancement, “the one thing women around the world have failed to do is create paradigm-shifting companies.

“None of the great technology start-ups — for example, Google, Apple and Facebook — were founded by a woman. Nor were any of the leading hedge funds, the innovators in the world of money, established by a women. Women are not just underrepresented in this space of transformative entrepreneurs — they are entirely absent.”

Freeland concludes that “the final frontier for women, even in societies that allow them to lead established institutions, is to be ruthless and to take big risks, essential qualities in world-changing entrepreneurs. Instead, as the authors found of female entrepreneurs in Malaysia, women often have to “lead as if they were mothers or teachers.”

This conclusion just demonstrates the extent to which even a very intelligent woman like Chrystia Freeland is still a prisoner of her social indoctrination.

Because the point is that it’s those risk-taking, world-changing entrepreneurs–all men–whose reckless leadership has so endangered our planet that we live in constant fear of the “sixth great extinction event.

It would be a profoundly GOOD THING for our planet and human civilization if our leaders guided us “as if they were mothers or teachers.”

Yes, I am writing this on an Apple laptop which I love, with my iphone on the desk beside me. Yes, I use Google and visit Facebook daily.

But is my attachment to these gadgets and conveniences more important to me, or the world, than our very survival as a species?

What good will my iphone do me when global heating goes out of control, leading to food shortages, storms of biblical proportion, and general lawlessness and fear?

The mother and teacher in me knows that those who look to me for guidance depend on me to choose a safe, wise path.  I will not lead them over a cliff.  I will weigh the risks and benefits and make the decision that benefits the group as a whole.

That is not true of the risk-taking cowboys who have led us to the brink of environmental, financial and social collapse as the 21st century dawns.

We need more men and women to come forward as responsible leaders and tell old-school folks like Freeland, in no uncertain terms, that her ideas of leadership are profoundly flawed.

It will do us no good if women achieve leadership success in the same old masculine terms.  If we are to survive the challenges that await us in the coming years, we need to change the paradigm of successful leadership.

Lead as if you were a mother or a teacher.  Let’s try that on for size.

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