The End of Men… as Leaders?

Hanna Rosin’s book The End of Men is making a splash. Rosin’s premise is that women are adapting better to the post-industrial economy than are men. Women are now getting the majority of college degrees and doing better in today’s job market.

 

Why Are Women Adapting Better To The New Economy?

Rosin claims it’s partly because women possess more of the key capabilities that are essential today – communication skills, emotional intelligence, the ability to “sit still and focus.”

But also, it’s because women are more adaptable to changing circumstances – while men can’t seem to let go of the old ways. This adaptability is a function of men’s and women’s different social positions. Men were top dogs, so for them change means loss. Women were underdogs, so for them change means opportunity. Sticking to old rules about masculinity, careers, and success limits men’s vision and flexibility.

Rosin cites data supporting this notion of adaptability. I’ll quote David Brooks’ summary of her evidence: “A study by the National Federation of Independent Business found that small businesses owned by women outperformed male-owned small businesses during the last recession. In finance, women who switch firms are more likely to see their performance improve, whereas men are more likely to see theirs decline. There’s even evidence that women are better able to adjust to divorce. Today, more women than men see their incomes rise by 25 percent after a marital breakup.”

Many have posed legitimate challenges to these arguments – notably that women are still under-represented in the higher bastions of power and don’t get equal pay for equal work. But something resonates in her arguments about the importance of flexibility in embracing change.

 

What Exactly, Are The New Demands?

So, let’s segue to a recent post by technology blogger Nilofer Merchant. Social media have transformed how people engage with each other – individuals have more power, new ideas can come from anywhere, collaboration and co-creation are key – and this effect spills into organizational life. Organizations need to respond to the new “social” era by changing how they approach strategy and innovation – becoming more nimble in decision-making, organizing in networks rather than hierarchies, etc.

Rosin and Merchant, I think, have their hands on different parts of the same elephant. But, the change required isn’t one that we can make simply by declaring it a new era, or by applying rational will or cognition. It’s a fundamental developmental shift, one of the key tasks of adult development, as described by Robert Kegan in his book In Over Our Heads. Our modern world requires us to change, adapt, step up to these new demands, let go of “received wisdom” about authority and organizational life. To embrace the new realities of nimbleness and collaboration, the key transformation will need to occur in the mindsets of organizational leaders. What does this transformation involve?

The Old Way

  • accepting the legitimacy of external authority
  • deferring to others with authority over you
  • using your authority to get compliance from those below you
  • wanting to please others that you view as powerful – being “respectful”
  • avoiding conflict and communicating indirectly or “off-line” about difficult issues
  • not upsetting the apple cart because of the fear of damaging relationships
  • creating a rational “persona,” not voicing your personal viewpoint for fear of being seen as selfish

The New Way

  • recognizing that the most important influence is lateral
  • seeking commitment rather than compliance – even when you have authority
  • treating everybody the same – “respect” does not vary with position
  • surfacing conflict openly with all relevant stakeholders
  • being able to challenge in a way that deepens, not threatens, the relationship
  • building win-win solutions that address the interests of all stakeholders

 

Why Is The New Way Scary?

Shifting from the Old Way to the New Way is not an overnight process, and it’s as challenging for women as it is for men. Theorists have been advocating this shift since Mary Parker Follett talked about power-over (the Old Way) and power-with (the New Way) – in 1924! Why hasn’t more changed?

If you are sitting solidly in Old Way thinking, the New Way looks terrifying. It challenges how you have learned to get esteem and see yourself as valuable – by reaching high position in an organization and being able to call the shots. By pleasing powerful people. You’ll need to have your comfort in the first zone challenged – seeing that customary approaches don’t work any more, and that your assumptions about what leads to success aren’t necessarily correct. Would your relationships be damaged if you shared your concerns about your boss’s proposal and tried to influence its shape, or would you potentially gain a deeper relationship and an outcome that both of you agree is “better”? Did your “tribe” of origin really have the only correct set of values? Is the way we always did it going to work in the future? If I messed with my winning formula and ventured into unknown territory, would I fail miserably?

If you want to survive and thrive in the new world, you need to recognize and question your assumptions.


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4 comments on “The End of Men… as Leaders?

  1. Exceptional post, Joan. I currently work at a generational think-tank. One of the emerging trends we see is the rise of women as professionals. University admissions departments have known about this trend for some time.

    I also agree that though the current rising trend is “gender-focused” it will eventually even out to a “skills-focus”. No gender owns the corner on skills.

    The question then becomes: how to help both genders have the courage to embrace the New World?

    Organizationally, it would have to stem from those innovators who are less afraid of change and can provide legitimacy for others. This should have two effects with regard to gender and two effects with regard to skill:

    Two Gender Effects
    1. Men should feel less anxiety about change.
    2. Women should feel more empowered regarding the opportunities these changes are bringing.

    Two Skills Effects
    1. Certain generations (like Millennials) will find the New Way easier to embrace because they’re already generationally wired to view authority and influence differently. Training will need to be customized to include a generational component. This is particularly important as the workforce ages. As people live longer, it will no longer be slanted toward the young.

    2. The value-proposition of information and opinion-sharing will change. Too many opinions and too much information means people will default to those who’ve garnered trust. This means that communication training will need to shift to include how to be heard above the “din”. In addition, there may be a serious struggle regarding the balance of the popular verses the outlier. The masses don’t always know what they actually want or need. In a society that increasingly values the “mass” opinion, individual conviction will need to be balanced with good communication. In other words, the skill of knowing how to listen and then how to respond in a way that engenders trust will become paramount.

    • Derek, you make so many interesting points here. Thank you for bringing the generational perspective. I agree completely that, in the end, the question is, “how to help both genders have the courage to embrace the New World?”

      I’ve been pondering the notion that Milennials are wired differently around authority. I buy this, yet I wonder whether, even so, there is some version of “received wisdom,” or tribal beliefs, that members of every generation must transcend as they develop.

      Regarding the information overload and ensuing shift in what it takes to be heard, absolutely. To me this escalates the influencing challenge – how do you make a compelling case for your point of view in a way that tunes into, and re-frames, how your audience sees the world? I’d argue that communication training as you describe it needs to be “developmental” – helping individuals go beyond their own point of view to understand others’ interests and values, and also go beyond wanting to satisfy others’ stated needs (your “masses”) to offer those others something they didn’t even know was possible or desirable, but which is compelling because it addresses their underlying interests and goals.

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