redefining leadership



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The dominant workplace of today has its legacy in a 1950’s model created by men, for men working in an industrial economy. The model was built to favor the white, heterosexual man with a stay-at-home wife, and it continues to shape our current workplaces. From the expectations around hours of work and time off, to the laws around maternity leave, to the furniture and design of the office space, to the gender-biased wording of job recruitment ads, or the unseen yet powerful signals of what leadership behaviors are recognized and rewarded, the workplace was made ‘to fit’ for this male muse and his designated role in society. As much as the current conversation on diversity seeks to collectively chip away at this heritage with policies, programs and processes, the workplace of today is still a comfortable environment, made to fit him. That makes true equity in the workplace a difficult conversation to have - when we are comfortable in an environment, it’s often hard to see or fully understand the discomfort of others, and the conversation can quickly become wrapped in guilt and fear. But for the rest of us just trying to fit into it, this legacy model is a constant source of friction, too often internalized as a personal deficiency rather than a design flaw. Today even the vestiges of that model no longer fit most people, including a large swath of men living vastly different lives, who have different norms and expectations than their fathers or grandfathers. Perhaps as importantly, the legacy model fails the institutions that consciously or unconsciously maintain that model, because it doesn’t reflect the reality of the world they serve, or the consumers or citizens they engage with. That’s a model we can’t just “lean in” to. It’s a model we’re going to have to radically redesign by questioning every assumption that went into building it.

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The Impact of the Traditional Definition of Leadership

There is no one definition of leadership, but strip down the norms and the literature to the bones, and there are underlying assumptions we mostly make when we point to someone as “a leader.”

Do you intuitively assume that a good leader will be assertive, firm, decisive, competitive, determined, knowledgeable, perhaps also rational, logical, sometimes even ruthless, whilst still caring for their teams? Notice how these behaviors are gendered as typically masculine. When you imagine this leader, do you see a man? The answer is more than likely yes, not just because there are still so few visible women leaders, but also because of those behaviors. Notice also how other behaviors are treated as lessor – certainly not indicators – of great leadership. Consider how behaviors such as collaboration, empathy, iteration, nurturing a team, can appear “feminine,” even “motherly”. Notice how these very behaviors are often devalued in the traditional workplace.

Why Today’s Model Hurts Both Women and Men

The implicit categorization of certain behaviors as “feminine” and incongruous with great leadership creates a subconscious quandary of epic proportions. Women are devalued in the workplace for the very traits which make them celebrated in society. Our culture still overwhelmingly grooms girls and women to define success as their roles as wives and mothers. Yet the behaviors associated with these roles are derided and devalued in the workplace, and certainly in leaders. With two such powerful conflicting signals at play, how can women reconcile being a successful woman with being a successful leader, when what defines your success as one defines your failure at the other? When if you are a great leader, it begs the question of how you can also be a great mother? Consider why female CEOs are so often asked about how they manage time to be a parent, when their male counterparts are never asked that question?

Consider also the two core narratives about ‘how women lead’ - the Cruella de Vil (the evil bitch) or the Cinderella (the pleaser who uses her charms). These two narratives, fact or fiction, perception or truth, fuel a vicious cycle. As women look up to these models above them, they’re faced with what they believe is a stark choice: adopt those leadership behaviors or accept that climbing a ladder is not an option. Is it any surprise that many women feel they have to turn on a different persona at work and shut off other parts of themselves in order to be successful?

A code-switching has to occur between the private and the professional for women. As a consequence, is it any surprise that for some women, switching off part of themselves can lead to deep anguish and imposter syndrome in both sides of their lives? Imagine if you had to lose your authenticity, to stop being your true self, in order to succeed at work? How could that not have consequences?

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The current stereotypes of great leadership also damage men, because they present a very narrow gauntlet of masculinity to navigate. When men display “feminine” behaviors, they’re often bullied; their masculinity is doubted, and their leadership profile is at risk. It’s no surprise that many of the favored leadership behaviors are also paternalistic in nature and hark back to the traditional heterosexual roles in a marriage: the father that sits at the head of the table, and firmly rules the roost with wisdom and authority. Yet for a generation of men growing up with working mothers, with new generational norms around gender and equality, these old models of leadership and masculinity are uncomfortable.

How to navigate being a man, rethinking what it means to be a leader and a partner and/or father? The dismantling of the definitions of leadership go to the heart of a broader crisis of gender identity for heterosexual men, and it is a hard, challenging path for those who reject inherited stereotypes.

Redesigning Leadership

The first step in radically redesigning the model is to recognize it. Having grown up in this model it is most often accepted as a rule of the world akin to gravity - accepted and unquestioned because all observable evidence supports it. As we see it for what it is, we can see how women and men unfettered by centuries-old social and behavioral norms can bring a new definition of leadership for all.


What If a Female CEO Acted Like Elon Musk? - The Atlantic

The ‘Masculine’ and ‘Feminine’ Sides of Leadership and Culture - Wharton

How to Propel The Future of Women’s Leadership - Forbes

Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? - Harvard Business Review