Guest Post from Dame Stephanie Shirley: "Leaders are different"

by Phil Dourado on Jan 30, 2017

This is a guest post from a leader we have admired for quite a while, since my colleague Zara pointed us at her TED Talk: Dame Stephanie Shirley... Phil Dourado

I can remember the shock when Churchill was not re-elected after the war in which he had led Britain to victory. But there are leaders of different sorts for different times and indeed different cultures.

Worldwide probably the biggest cultural difference between leaders is gender. This has the most profound implications. Because equality will only come when men share leadership equally with women.

In many countries, only between a quarter and a half of leaders are women. Historically, we do best in the notforprofit sector. Though nowadays all notforprofits have to be businesslike, the low representation of women is most evident in business.

Leaders define leadership

I’m an entrepreneur who, back in 1962, started a computer software company of women, for women. Leaders – men and women alike - often start things. They also then invariably determine the criteria for leadership in their own organizations and beyond -- and thus who will, and will not, lead in the future.

Some companies therefore have egalitarian, informal, power structures where people are treated equally and where leaders are expected to be participative and there are few status symbols.

Others are more hierarchical and formal. In these organizations, leaders are decisive and authoritative, and people expect an uneven distributions of power. In this environment standing is typically based on age, gender and organizational rank. The emphasis is placed on status symbols and giving respect, or “face”.

Naturally, these cultural differences affect how people behave – their focus tending either towards building relationships or to getting what they want.

And we communicate these differences in everything we do or say. Hence the innumerable misunderstandings between those who communicate indirectly (“I’m not sure that I hear you correctly.”) and those who communicate directly (“Speak up!”).

And that’s a gender issue. All over the world, across cultures, women tend to communicate indirectly, take turns, self-denigrate, apologise, and ask questions. We are much more likely than men to use the inclusive “we” rather than I”.

Dame Stephanie Shirley TED

Men tend to speak in the first person. They are more likely to interrupt others, avoid taking questions or apologizing. They avoid displays of vulnerability that may cause them to lose face. Being one-up is a safer place.

Let me give an example. A young male friend, Director of an international company, recently told me “Steve [the masculine name I use in business], you’re far too accessible. When someone comes into your office, don’t get up immediately, but instead say, ‘I’ll be with you in a few minutes when I’ve finished this…’, That will show them that your activities are the more important.” To most women, that’s just rude. I would view it as rude. But he -- and he is a very nice man -- viewed it as showing leadership.

Dame Stephanie Shirley City of London

Non-verbal signals have great impact. Leaders are expected to have a confident demeanour, stand straight, take up space, speak fluently and audibly. Margaret Thatcher believed that she needed to dominate – by idea and by presence – in order to win.

Notoriously hard to define, leadership is no longer determined in these military-like postures. But whenever women behave to confirm the gender stereotype, they’re not viewed as acting as a proper leader. And, if we behave according to the leader stereotype, we are thought to be unfeminine. This is a double bind.  Women of colour face additional pressure; they are often expected to both suppress their racial identity and to assimilate.

Looking to the future, gender becomes less relevant as organisations become virtual. My own interests have shifted from promoting gender inclusion to furthering diversity. I employed a tall, dark and handsome man at Director level at a time when there were few black faces in the City of London. I am involved in getting a million people with Asperger’s, high on the autistic spectrum, into employment in the IT industry. The goal is a million people – globally – by 2020.  And finally, with an American President in his 70’s, what is this thing called ageism?

I believe in leading the drive for diversity of all kinds.

Dame Stephanie Shirley

Dame Stephanie’s memoir Let IT Go is available from Amazon (UK) (US).

Her TED Talk on how she went by Steve and upended expectations of the time, ‘Why do ambitious women have flat heads?

© January 2017
Dame Stephanie Shirley

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