Thursday, February 28, 2008

Behind the Scenes - Managing Leadership Roles

This post was inspired by Melissa at Taking What Is Left, whose post yesterday discussed the differences between boys and girls in school. I want to write about how I have managed leadership roles as a follower and a leader in my past, and a couple of those experiences deal directly with gender-related topics.

Many men I have worked with in life prefer to lead. They seek after important positions on teams - forward of the soccer team, point guard of the basketball team, quarterback of the football team, captain of any team. They seek recognition in the classroom - highest grade on a test, STAR Student, valedictorian. They seek after recognition in their business - promotions, important assignments, being "boss", titles with C-O or President in them. They seek after recognition in community groups - chairman of a political party, president of a social club, chairman of a fundraising effort, deacon of a church. They seek after public office. They lead from the front whenever possible. First into the fray, top dog, head of the class, alpha male. They are revered by many around them, hated by some, feared in some cases, but almost always respected for their talent or charisma (or both) in some regard. Not all of these men are born to lead, but most of them definitely aspire to it.

I have certainly encountered many women who want to lead as well. Some of the most dynamic leaders I have worked with have been women. One such leader took a high school Interact Club which had formerly been comprised of about ten members and grew it to over 100 members in one year. She did it by word of mouth, recruiting her friends and getting them to recruit their friends, and by being warm and inviting to anyone interested in the club at all. I think she shaped the future leaders of that group as well, because the president who followed her led it in a very different way than she had presided over the Key Club the year before (which still only had ten members when she was done being president). She built an organization that became a cornerstone of the high school in the years that followed, and one that became an important part of recognition at graduation, as members who worked enough hours of service received a rope to wear with their robes.

I realize the last paragraph did not parallel the one before very well, but I have also had somewhat less experience with seeing women seek after leadership roles. Because I have a fairly broad range of experience, I feel reasonably confident in saying that women are less inclined to seek top leadership positions in general, but there are definitely those who want to lead. Some are, as the one I described, compassionate leaders who inspire. Many, especially those in politics and business, built their careers on a reputation of bone crushing and ball breaking, emulating the men in those fields but outdoing them in that way. I have certainly known compassionate female politicians, like the current State School Superintendent of Georgia and my former State Representative from my hometown. I have seen compassionate bosses in the corporate world, at least in articles I have read. But again, my experience shows me that in general men are more often driven to lead from the front than women. Women regularly assume the roles of party or club secretary, vice president of public affairs, and other supporting offices that are not number one. The first female chair of the Georgia Republican Party was just elected last year, and most people would probably agree she received the position because she had earned it by serving in so many offices of support before being chair. I have a tremendous amount of respect for women who do so much of the work of so many organizations and get so little credit because they are not the one whose name is mentioned first. The same goes for men who choose supporting roles, but I find more of them seem to take those roles in the hopes of one day being on top, while many of the women are quite happy being reelected year after year to serve in supporting roles - or they simply support without any office recognition at all.

I have held many positions of leadership. President of clubs and men's groups, captain of several teams, treasurer of a political party, vice president of several social clubs, counselor to the leader of my local church, and president of my company. I might say I have experience in leadership, certainly for someone as young as I am (I still think of myself as young in general). One of the things I most prefer to do, though, is to identify leaders and encourage a group to follow them. I have handpicked numerous officers of various clubs, encouraged peers to enter politics (yes, I admit it is shameful to wish such a thing on anyone), and selected leaders to head social organizations I have started. I know there is a huge amount of work involved in being at the head of any group, and I would rather help those who want the job to achieve it by being part of their support group than to be the leader myself.

In graduate school, I personally chose to follow two women in two different teams because I felt they were the best to lead their projects, and I personally picked two men to lead two clubs I organized because they were uniquely suited to guide those clubs.

The first team leader I chose because I liked her project and it was hers by virtue of her forming the idea, namely to start a Hispanic movie theater in Atlanta. She knew the market from having grown up in that community in Atlanta, and she had identified a perfect location that was available in the heart of most Hispanic part of the city. She obviously had passion for the project because she wanted it to truly happen. I knew my experience with accounting would be an asset to her team because she was a public affairs specialist by degree, and her teammate had a background in journalism. I helped another classmate who was an excellent fact finder, data miner, and data analyzer decide to join the team, and we made a wonderful project. I came within a few signatures of actually starting that business after graduate school, but the project fell through when the movie supplier reneged on his promise to supply first-run blockbusters to our theater. Instead my teammate and I (her original teammate was "fired" from the group by both of us and my friend left because we had what we needed from him) wished each other well and both got married that summer, moving away to different cities.

The second team leader I chose to follow was one who I felt had the best chance to lead a team we were assigned to by our teachers. She had experience in consulting, and it was our job to work on a project consulting with a county school district in the Atlanta area on whether or not they should centralize food production into one facility in their district. I wanted to do a quality job, and her experience in handling consulting jobs would be key to making sure we broke up th project into logical parts. I also knew that the other female on our team would want to lead (I knew her personality) and I would not have wanted to work for her nearly as much. It was clear from the outset that none of the three men on the team would want to be project manager, so I quickly endorsed the experienced consultant within five minutes of our first meeting. Our project was highlighted in the school magazine for what we were doing (at least in part because we were helping a school district, but hopefully because we did a good job) and we gave the district leaders a lot to think about.

The two men I chose to head the clubs were pretty different, but both ambitious to lead. The president of the Terry MBA Toastmasters had a lot of friends, got along well with people, and had a passion to become better as a public speaker. I knew he would encourage many of our classmates to join the club, despite the fact that it meant more work on top of a very busy class schedule. To my knowledge, that club lived on because his presidency formed a succession that a second-year student would always be president, and a first-year student would always follow him so the club would never go without leadership through the summers and after graduation. The other young man I chose made sense to me because he had experience in ILA Toastmasters (ILA stands for Institute for Leadership Advancement, and was comprised entirely of Juniors and Seniors mostly in the business school), and because he was a junior who could serve the club after I was gone and steward it along. Not having the luxury of an experienced Toastmaster in the MBA club made my friend and classmate a logical choice for that club, while experience made more sense in the younger club. I would have been fine with another person who also wanted to be president of that club, but he was popularly elected by the club's members (as was my friend, but he had no opponent in his election). She was dynamic, passionate - a born leader. He, though, still did a great job of helping the club establish order and follow an agenda, which is an important part of the teachings of Toastmasters (running a meeting). He might have made a better second president, because she was a Senior and he a Junior, but I was glad for his leadership nonetheless.

Each of those graduate teams and each of those clubs demonstrate the value of being willing to follow, regardless of the gender of the leader. Great leaders can accomplish a great deal, but without men and women willing to follow them, they have a much more difficult job. I, for one, am glad for someone else to get the recognition when they ask for the job or demonstrate to me they would do a good one. By being a leader's follower, I can shape an organization through their efforts and my own, instead of fighting against a leader I do not agree with or having to lead myself and find people willing to help me. One day, perhaps, I will feel I can no longer avoid the role of leader anymore in certain areas, but by then, hopefully I will have found others like me who will encourage followers to join me.

-- Robert


Anonymous said...

Well, I'm in the camp that shies away from leading, although I am a manager now and am forced to do so. I've always hated the thought of dealing with people and their petty problems (you'd think that adults would act like adults but often it's like we are still in kindergarten). The team you have is critical to your success and great if you can pick your team, but if you've been given a team, well good luck (to me) changing it... Managing is sometimes like being mom, and I spend too much of my life doing that!

Robert said...

Ah, the delicate balance between "management" and "grunts" or as I so often heard it, management and engineers (both my sister and brother-in-law are engineers). I agree, managing is a tedious process very often. People ask you to help with situations in much the same way a child asks you to open their milk even after they know how - it's just easier to ask someone else to do it for me.

Ironically, I think you have struck on one of my primary frustrations with the entitlement mentality so prevalant in today's society. So many people walk around with their hands stuck out expecting the government to do this, give that, stop this, but most of all get it from anyone else and give me mine. The Me Generation all grown up, looking out for number one.

I know that sounds terrible and cynical. I know plenty of people who don't want everything handed to them. Most of those I know, though, well... I won't say it. Okay, I will: they vote Republican. I am not trying to throw down the gauntlet with that statement, but I am commenting on an my own observations.

Too much has been done in the name of the common good that has harmed the common good, done in the name of the poor that has done horrible damage to the poor, done in the name of health care and the environment and everything else that has the opposite effect.

I'm ranting, so I'll stop. I empathize with you, Angela. I run a business where I am every day asked to help men and women do things that I should not have to do for them, and I am left holding the bag when they do not repay the debt. I am regularly asked to deal with situations of grave distress. I am right there with you. Humanity can be cumbersome, but it's part of life. The best advice I can give is to learn the talents of the team you have and leverage them into greater dividends of success, at least as much as you can influence what they do.

le35 said...

I think that often, it's the people who don't WANT to lead who do the best at it. Politics is backward. It seems like instead of running for office, people ought to campaign for someone to take the office, and the person taking office shouldn't be in the middle of it. That way, the person leading would definately have the support of the followers because they're the people who wanted him there.

Robert said...

I can definitely agree with that explanation, Ellie. That's somewhat like what I'm describing - I prefer to pick leaders I think will do a good job instead of just those who want it. In my example, I knew the one woman wanted it, but Sarah would do a better job of handling the different skillsets and keeping the first one from driving the rest of us nuts. She did, I think, do a great job as project manager, and I'm sure she appreciated my endorsement when she never even asked me to give one.