Leadership Emerging

June 2010 / Leadership Emerging

Linda Tarr-Whelan. Women Lead the Way: Your Guide to Stepping Up to Leadership and Changing the World. San Francisco: Barrett-Koehler, 2009.

tarr-whelan coverThe premise behind this book is that there is a 30% solution to gender imbalance in leadership of businesses and government. By filling the chairs at the tables of decision making the character of our organizations and our collective actions will shift. Women will provide a particular set of skills, competencies and worldviews based on building relationships and partnerships, collaboration and work-life balance. The testosterone driven male dominated world would soften to include more nurturing and supportive dynamics. And there would be a positive impact on the bottom line.

The author’s “goal is to see you–my reader–seated at one of those power tables and wedging the door open for more and more women to join you.” Forgive me, but I have this gnawing feeling that I, as a male, am about to enter forbidden territory. Certainly, I support the effort to redress the legacies of oppression suffered by women in our society. Of course I would like to see the rise of a partnership society, a la Riane Eisler, rather than the dominator model that continues to prevail in the United States (and elsewhere). But dare I peek into the strategies women might pursue to redress the balance? Of course I should, for I have been a part of the oppressors and I must attend to the oppressor within. Perhaps reading further will support this.

Tarr-Whelan urges women to the transformational leaders, while working with like-minded men (so reading on might be acceptable). One of the steps toward that goal is to understand the myths and stereotypes they will likely contend with. To begin with, the term leader almost always conjures up images of males. Like her male counterpart in this issue of Integral Leadership Review, Keith Merron, frame breaking and frame shifting are ways to address these kinds of stereotypes. Others involve women being too soft, they face higher competence thresholds, using assertiveness by women leads to their being disliked, and so on.

Myths include the idea that smart women are staying home with their children, thereby dropping out. Another is discrimination is co-incidental. Still another is that there is no woman qualified for the position. Each and other myths are contradicted by data from studies or the fact that there are now many women with high-level executive skills. There is also a quiz you can take to see which stereotypes or myths you might buy into. Furthermore, talented women will move upward faster if they break out of the box by not taking discrimination against women becoming leaders personally. It is a systemic issue.

The author recommends a transformational leader model to aim for, one that is designed to meeting the challenges in the world today. Women’s shared values support such an approach, particularly to address the mess ups of male-dominated sectors of the economy and government, e.g. the Wall Street financial mess. Examples include emphasis on prevention, long-range thinking, work integrated with community and family, horizontal organizational structures and a commitment to diversity.

It is interesting that she sees a trend in the direction of definitions of leadership. These include management modes such as loyalty, just do it, the boss is always right. By 2007 business writers were talking about a new approach to what counts in corporate leadership. These include skills in listening, consensus building, and being individuals others follow by choice, not command.

The later part of the book offers a road map to achieving the 30% Solution. Invest wisely, use your individual power, maintain work-life balance, take the long view, these are but a few of advisories for women seeking to move up. Ultimately this is a call for women to band together in a shared pursuit of strengthening the access to executive positions and authority in U.S. institutions.

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