Real Leaders

How To Stand Up To The Strong And Wrong

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Male leaders are very often both strong and wrong. And they get away with it. Research from the University of Pennsylvania confirms that men love making decisions. Male brains are wired for action. Male thinking is linear and simplistic. Men are motivated to act with confidence. It establishes dominance and that’s a big drive because men are primarily motivated by power and status. Developmental psychologists tell us that watching boys at play is a pretty accurate reflection of how their brains are developing. Boys generally like combat that establishes hierarchies.

Toughness and physical prowess are highly valued. Many anthropologists believe sports were invented to prevent young men from killing each other. And today, video games also provide ways to compete and establish hierarchical status for boys who are less successful at establishing physical dominance. Of course neuro-research confirming what we generally observe watching boys grow up is no surprise. What’s foolish is that we do not talk enough about the limitations of male thinking in a dangerous world.

It’s striking that we have many members of the U.S. Congress express admiration for Vladimir Putin as a decisive leader. The fact that he is a narcissistic bully with nuclear weapons doesn’t seem to deter their fascination. When senators openly admire the un-hinged audacity of Putin you see the limitations of male thinking.

But should we admire strength in a leader for its own sake. Strength without morality?

For thousands of years the gender that is physically strongest has asserted its dominance. Men primarily lead virtually all institutions. And not just any men. As I have written, competitiveness, confidence and decisiveness are the path to power in any hierarchical organization. So the people at the top are in many ways the most aggressive and simple-minded. In fact research published last year revealed that CEOs have the lowest amount of emotional intelligence than any other category of employee. Now I know what you might be thinking. Daniel Goleman, who is the researcher that made emotional intelligence a field of study, has said that emotional intelligence is more important than IQ in achieving success.

But it turns out to be a lot more complicated than that. It seems emotional intelligence is a driver for success in modern corporations only up to a point. It’s true that people who move into middle-management and even attain the level of vice president generally have higher emotional intelligence than workers who are not given management responsibility. However, the people that break out of the pack to achieve the highest levels of senior leadership turn out to be people with lower emotional intelligence than the people they lead. It may not appear that way because research shows CEOs are also the greatest concentration of narcissists in business organizations. Narcissist’s biggest advantage is something called negative empathy.

This means they understand how you feel and use that knowledge to manipulate you. No, I’m not saying that all CEOs are narcissist, but rather that modern organizations are designed to reward people who are highly competitive manipulators. I have found that they are often simple-minded, meaning they have a hard time dealing with uncertainty and complexity in a world that is increasingly uncertain and complex.

What they love to do is make decisions. Good luck with that… according to research from Ohio State University at least 50% of business decisions are mistakes. So how do all these simple minded CEO’s keep their jobs? They seduce their Boards of Directors. Very recent research confirms that confidence positively arouses our brains. People who assert themselves and their ideas forcefully actually stimulate adrenaline in our body, and dopamine and serotonin in our brain.

This is a powerful cocktail that tells us everything is going to work out fine. The strategy will succeed, the tribe will prosper and we will be victorious over our enemies. Male brains, which have high-powered amygdalae, are especially susceptible to unsupported strategies of dominance. The technical term for this is “susceptibility to bullshit”…or STB. (Ha!)

Male brains, which have high-powered amygdalae, are especially susceptible to unsupported strategies of dominance. The technical term for this is “susceptibility to bullshit”…or STB. (Ha!)

Well, what can we learn from this? Virtually every week I talk to frustrated women leaders who feel they spend most of their time cleaning up messes caused by the avoidable mistakes of overly confident, usually male, superiors. And frankly they are sick of it. But like nurturing mothers or dutiful wives they show up, clean up and calm everyone down.

Yet this is not a solution. The core problem is human beings are wired to give confident-acting people power. That is not going to change any time soon and that’s a problem because women generally act less confident than men. Their humility is triggered by their neuro-networks that cause women to think holistically. They see the complexity of serious problems and tend to weigh decisions more carefully. They worry about unintended effects. They resist impulsiveness. They are generally less assertive and more collaborative.

These are called wisdom traits and are exceptionally well suited to lead in our age of increasing ambiguity and constant surprise. But most of this female leadership power is lost because the very qualities that make them potentially extraordinary 21st Century leaders mute the confidence and courage required to be given the reins of leadership. The solution? Well maybe it sounds too simple but this is what I have found works. When I develop women leaders I start with 3 principles:

Don’t wait to lead for a future time when you feel more confident. Confidence is gained by acting confidently.

Don’t wait to lead for a future time when you feel more confident. Confidence is gained by acting confidently. You will probably never feel as confident inside as you must act on the outside. Your brain is wired for self- doubt and you will probably never silence your inner voice that is telling you to sit down and be quiet. So “woman up!” You will need to communicate like a confident women leader. You always have a strategic agenda. Men will assume you are a tactical thinker and problem solver.

They are conditioned to see you as an aide to the general, never the general. So you must tie every goal you champion to a winning strategy that will result in market dominance. (Remember our brains are wired to support leaders who promise dominance over competitors. You don’t have to be strong and cold like Margaret Thatcher, but keep in mind it was her resolute promise to restore England’s economy and military strength that got her the Prime Minister’s job. You can be both strong and warm.) So, no matter what your position always state your current goals in the context of the big picture.

Always state and restate your reasons as to why your goals and priorities are vital to success. Men tend to state their objectives and assume others will just buy in and start working on them. This is a foolish assumption for men and a huge mistake for women. You have to market your goals like a product. What are the compelling benefits to your goals that make them worthy of money and resources you need?

You may think you already do these things but I have found women’s self-awareness of how they project power to be quite weak. Ask some men you trust how others perceive your leadership power. You maybe surprised. There is a lot more to the success principles of women leaders but these first three are foundational. Here they are in shorthand:

  • You are well equipped to lead in today’s world. You will always feel inner doubt. Dismiss that doubt and decide to lead.
  • Develop and express clear, strategically relevant goals. Goals that will help your team and your enterprise win.
  • Constantly campaign for your goals and agenda. Express clear reasons why your goals deserve attention and investment. Make waves.

I implore you to do this. Without the wisdom of holistic, smart thinking our future will be determined by men who actually admire bully-leaders like Putin and that is just plain pathetic. So please rise up!

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