All Hail the Great Leader!

Leadership. That trait that even those who are disinterested in it recognize when it’s present. It is what organizations demand of all its collaborators. No matter who you work for, chances of advancement depend a lot on whether you can lead or not.

But, what comes to mind when you hear the word leader?

Throughout history, there are a couple of clear archetypes. There is the King. He has all the attention centered on him.  He is the link between heaven and earth. A protector, the existence and well-being of his subjects depend on him.  A good king is a visionary.  A man of action, he is confident. He keeps his cool in times of adversity. He makes the hard decisions. He is wise, like King Salomon.

Maybe you’re like me. It is the Warrior I think of. Characters such as William Wallace (Mel Gibson) in Braveheart and Maximus (Russell Crowe) in The Gladiator are the epitome of the hero who rides on horseback with armies behind him. The fighter who becomes legend. He is competitive. He is strategic.  He commands respect. He is not born into the role, he earned the role. He has no room for doubt and weakness because losing is not an option.

These are all men, real or imaginary. Women who in the past have risen to the challenge and excelled as leaders have had to make sacrifices. They’ve paid their price in life and sometimes with their reputation even after death. England’s Queen Elizabeth I, China’s Empress Wu Zetian, China’s female warrior Hua Mulan (the real legend, not the Disney film), were all great leaders…

I catch myself in my thoughts. Why, if I’m a big fan of female leadership and a die-hard believer that there are different leadership styles that can be equally effective, would I first think of men when asked the question? How many of us carry subconscious biases that are inherited from centuries or even millennia old traditions? How do we break this pattern for those who have already been conditioned, help them switch off the automatic mode and become aware of their thinking? How do we make changes for the new generation of leaders we are forming with updated, inclusive concepts?

The idea of leadership took center stage when I started my professional life. Suddenly, it is THE word used by my bosses and HR. Anyone who had ambitions to have a successful career had to become a leader. But, everyone’s idea of leadership was (and still is) different. Depending on their background, people applauded different traits. Invariably, they compared women to men.  Once women behaved like men, they were intensely disliked. Young Cristina was very confused.

Fast forward to present day. Once in a while, I do volunteer work. I received a call from a friend who runs a club to develop leadership in teenage girls. (From now on, “the teens”.) The teens had organized a visit to an orphanage. They prepared a list of activities that included conversations on love, respect and obedience followed by hours of games to enjoy with the girls at the home. (From now on, “the girls”.) I was to be a chaperone of a group of teens and their girls, with instructions not to intervene unless things get out of hand.

What a lesson awaited us! The teens were all excited. They were ready. They organized the agenda, prepared their topics, assembled their props. They even took candy bags. They thought it was going to be easy-peasy. Instead, they found themselves in front of a hostile audience.

As an observer, I was fascinated by the interactions. The girls ranged from six to twelve. One lone sixteen-year-old sat in a corner, quite bored with the whole scene. There were a couple of alphas who fought for dominance of the pack. They wanted nothing to do with what they considered sermons by the visiting teens, inciting the others to join their rebellion. The poor teens struggled. One froze.

After a few minutes, I jumped in. I felt that if I let the bad energy continue to build, it would become too hard to manage. The first course of action was to defuse the situation. I directed my attention at the “problem” girls without recriminations. (Actually, I quite enjoyed their spirit. Well directed, they have the potential to become great leaders.) Instead, I gave them the chance to voice their opinions, however sarcastic they wanted to be, and praised them on how much they already knew. The goal was to strip them of their armor and change the dynamics at play. I understood that they have a strong defense mechanism because of their circumstances.

I then suggested a game of charades which, thankfully, was a huge hit. The teens looked relieved. And, I hope I was able to show them that sometimes one has to adapt when the prepared script doesn’t work.

Now that everybody was back to a happy place, I discreetly gave the teens some tips on how to proceed and what to project to avoid repeating the scenario. I then announced to the girls that the teens were in charge of the day’s order. No major bumps after that. Just one more thing to “fix”. I asked one of the other chaperones to talk to the bored girl separately. The lady is a hairdresser. She was the perfect person to interest a sixteen-year-old on personal grooming and style.

The experience reminded me of my “preoccupation” regarding the current state of the world and the need of a renovated notion of leadership. Not that the old ideas are wrong, they’re just incomplete. I am still a fan of my old-time heroes. But, I’d like to see more people from around the world get access to a new approach. One that is inclusive of gender, styles, personalities and cultures.

What makes a good leader? Here’s a short list born out of those whom I admire.

  • Integrity. Without it, nothing else matters.
  • Courage to make the right calls.
  • Resilience in difficult times.
  • Vision. With a plan and a dash of passion.
  • Great communication skills. To connect, inspire, persuade, influence, encourage.
  • An eye for talent and skills in others.
  • Ability to bring out the best and complementary strengths in a group. An empowered team feels supported.
  • Flexibility. To adapt, improvise, change course of action if needed. But, without losing sight of the end goal.
  • Strategy. Creativity. That is, problem solving with an oomph.
  • Ownership of failures as well as wins.
  • Willingness to confront when the situation requires it.

No matter your personality type, whether you want to lead from the front or from behind, whether you are a man or a woman, all the above qualities can be cultivated. Create and embrace your own brand of leadership style. Pave the way for equal opportunity and development of the next generation of leaders so that they can continue moving us forward as a participative society. The way to do it is by reminding ourselves of this responsibility and making a conscious effort to eliminate our own biases.