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Thought Thursdays
Forget sexual stereotypes: Both men and women leaders need a far more important attribute


In South Africa, women leaders are being punted, appreciated and celebrated in varying degrees, depending on beliefs and assumptions about men, women and leadership. In August this year, a Women’s Month advertisement   by Bic SA (pictured below) brought the company instant global notoriety, rather than the accolades it was seeking, when all it wanted to do, I assume, was to celebrate women’s diversity, i.e. their so-called ability to multi-task and master the ‘softer’ skills. Bic SA has since issued an apology. 

The notorious Bic SA advertisement which offended gender sensibilities

Why does this happen? Should we rather not say anything for fear of getting it wrong? Rather than being outraged about the sexism implied in the advertisement or elsewhere, I feel we should ask a different question about leadership.

 What is required of both men and women as leaders in the 21st century?

We are looking at a future that is rosy with potential and opportunity along the lines of the ‘Africa Rising’ meme, as we see cities taking shape, industries developing, and people moving into the middle class and getting connected to the digital world on our continent. At the same time, there are many difficult challenges that confront public and private sector leaders. The World Economic Forum created a connected risk report earlier this year and it is informative on how political, economic, social and environmental risks intersect. We are indeed very vulnerable. But this dual context of opportunities and challenges requires different skill sets from leaders than were required from them in the past.

VUCA – an acronym derived from military vocabulary in the 1990s describing situations that are volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous – has subsequently frequently been applied in the area of strategic leadership. Harvard academics prescribe leadership agility to deal with a VUCA world. 

This means that leaders need to be able to adapt to their contexts and challenges, and that they cannot afford to be stuck in a stereotypical way of thinking nor respond with a defined set of well-practised skills, if they want to be successful. 

So if the hard skills (traditionally seen as masculine) of assertiveness, follow-through and speed come easily to you, you may come undone when you find that you are making decisions about aspects of which you have no experience or when your style strikes your millennial-generation teams as undesirable. Conversely, if you default to the softer skills (traditionally seen as feminine) of listening, being creative and favouring teamwork, you may find that you are avoiding risks and experiments you should be taking on to move your organisation forward in an uncertain environment. 

What is needed here is the ability to move with and relate to what is required from you as a leader, internally and externally, as opposed to being stuck with an outdated preference or habit or idea of what you think you ‘should be’.

I will share with you three alternative ways to approach this requirement of agility.  

Patsy Rodenburg, an extremely successful voice coach, trains actors for the theatre where their quality of presence, voice and connection with the audience makes or breaks a live performance. She has written several books about the concept of presence, and I think her experience offers value to today’s leaders who need to be very aware of what is going on around and inside them, and are often in ‘performance’ mode in front of and with other people, and therefore need a strong sense of themselves and their own choices. 

She calls this quality of presence ‘second circle energy’, where you are in true relationship with what is around you; as against ‘third circle energy’ where you try to overpower a situation or ‘first circle energy’ where you are overpowered and withdrawn from the situation. It seems to be a good analogy for leaders navigating our VUCA world – i.e. being in their second circle, awake, aware and present, in relation to the world, others and self. 

But how does a leader get into or stay in this second circle? Practising mindfulness techniques, such as meditation, yoga and simple breathing exercises, help you to think more clearly with a stronger sense of body–mind presence. So, next time you are in a leadership conundrum, ask yourself: What circle am I in? And if you find yourself pushing or pulling at something, chances are you are not in the second circle of presence. Go for a walk. Press firmly against the surface of your desk and breathe a few deep breaths and come back into relationship with your world. I bet it will help you to navigate better. 

I also think it helps to examine or ‘inquire into’ your own leadership practices. This means looking at what you are actually thinking, feeling and doing in practice, either on your own or with others over time. There are several well-researched methods of inquiry in this tradition, typically called action research. Among the contributors are Peter Reason and John Heron who felt that it is important to have such cooperative inquiry approaches so that we can revise our understanding of our world, as well as transform practices within our world. 

An easy way to follow this approach is to keep a journal. Regular writing practice is a very simple, yet robust way to perform action research on your own leadership. Having this kind of reflective process to inquire into your own practice over time is very valuable and will deepen your understanding of yourself as a leader and also advance your actions in the work environment. And, most important, reflection will help you to stop trying the same thing time after time, yet expecting a different outcome. 

My final reframing of the concept of leadership is as an agile relational practice. We have all heard about the Peter Principle – where a manager gets promoted based on current skills and then fails in the new role. Often this has to do with not being able to adjust to the new demands of the role – which may sometimes be increasingly technical or administrative – but more often it has to do with the inability to rise to the relational demands of the new role. As you advance in an organisation, the need to see the whole or the bigger picture, to see connections, and the ability to utilise emotional and social intelligence to achieve organisational outcomes rise in importance.  Joyce Fletcher holds that relational practice refers to the strategic use of relational skills to do good work and accomplish organisational goals.

But here is where we start becoming confused. We conflate emotional and social intelligence with softness and femininity, with women in general, and then lose ourselves in how to manage and measure its contribution. Or we take it for granted and do not realise it was the relational and social capital in a situation that drove the results, not so much the IQ, ‘thinking like a man’ or the financial capital that did the job for us. Or worse, we see a woman making tough calls to get good work done and we think the B-word … or we see a man being receptive, open, listening and we think ‘wimp’. 

This is where we need to stop ourselves from thinking along stereotypical lines and indulging in our habitual binary thinking – hard skills or soft skills – and cease our gendered thinking about work and leadership – men lead like this and women like that. Our VUCA world requires of all of us, men and women, to expand our range of work, skills and leadership capacities. 

My hope is that in the future we will celebrate agile and diverse leaders. Men and women who are able to do the good work the world needs, whatever their personal style may be. 

Vanessa Otto-mentz.jpg
​Vanessa Otto-Mentz is a strategic change practitioner, researcher and co-active coach. She conducts projects with USB-ED and the Centre for Business in Society, and teaches Strategic Management on USB’s MBA programme. Her field of expertise is enterprise risk, governance and strategic change leadership.

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