How we perceive a leader

Are we blind to leadership qualities in women?

David Zweig
Women leaders

At the United Nations headquarters in New York City: (from left) Roza Otunbayeva, former President of Kyrgyzstan; Hilary Clinton, former U.S. Secretary of State; Kamla Persad-Bissessar, Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago; Asha-Rose Migiro, U.N. Deputy Secretary-General.

"Leadership is in the eye of the beholder." – Joseph Nye

Think of a leader you know, then list 10 of their leadership characteristics. Chances are good that your list will correspond closely to lists of leader traits generated by young people, old people, males, females and pretty much everyone across the world. That is because we all share a similar conceptualization of what a leader looks like—our implicit leadership prototype. Based on this list of common traits—often including characteristics such as intelligence, charisma, decisiveness, assertiveness, independence and being courageous—followers decide who is a leader and who is not.

We spend a lot of time and energy trying to understand which behaviours lead to success as a leader and which personalities make some leaders more effective than others. However, followers often decide who is an effective leader by determining if that person fits with their perceptions of what a leader should look like. So if a leader demonstrates the traits we expect a leader to exhibit we are willing to follow this person.

For example, as a leader of the management department at UTSC, I decide to forge a new path, create and present a long-term strategy to advance the department’s goals. This strategy has many risks, but if it succeeds I believe it will create a stronger department. Now, I cannot force people to “buy in” and follow my path. They must decide this themselves and be willing to help me realize the strategy.

If people view me as fitting with their implicit theory of what a leader looks like, it is likely that I will be successful in convincing them to follow me. But if I don’t “look the part,” it is going to be much more difficult.

Now, what if I told you that the leader of the management department is a woman? Would you be less willing to support her?

Many, if not all of you, would answer "No!" unequivocally. However, research by Krysten A. Scott and Douglas Brown published in 2006 demonstrates otherwise. Regardless of age, gender, and even sexist beliefs, followers presented with information about identical behaviours enacted by male and female leaders are less likely to endorse females as leader-like and are less likely to follow them. Remember, the behaviours by the male and female leaders were identical. What’s going on here?

To understand this, we have to go back to our implicit leadership prototypes. Many of the traits we all come up with to describe leaders also apply to the traits we use to describe men. When we see a man acting in a courageous, decisive and assertive manner, it is easy for us to recognize these behaviours as being leader-like and to infer that he is a leader. But when we see a woman acting in the exact same manner, we do not recognize these same behaviours as leader-like and it is more difficult for us to infer that she is a leader. Thus, even if a female leader comes up with a brilliant strategy and a detailed plan for achieving the goals, if her followers don’t perceive her as leader-like, it is less likely that they will engage in the behaviours necessary to enact the strategy, and her chances of success are slim.

Some would argue that this supports the notion that women can’t lead, and that is patently false. What the research demonstrates is that women have more difficulty being perceived as leaders—even when they engage in the exact same behaviours as men. What has to change is our implicit leadership prototypes. If we change how we think about leaders and begin to incorporate different aspects of leadership—such as those linked to transformational leadership (e.g., consideration, compassion)—we can view leader behavior for what it is, and not who enacts it.

David Zweig is the Chair of the Department of Management at UTSC.