Breaking the stereotype that female leaders don't have 'vision'
By Reyna Matthes
I will use my influence to create an Australia that welcomes women, that cherishes their voice and eagerly awaits their wisdom… A world where vulnerability is power, where difference is celebrated, where those who struggle are supported, where leadership is shared equally between men and women and where each half of humanity embraces and supports the other.
Elizabeth Broderick, Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Australian Human Rights Commission and Winner, Women of Influence 2014.
Who says women don’t have vision? A few years ago there was an article published in HBR, titled Women and the Vision Thing. This paper reported on a large-scale leadership study that showed women outshining men in most dimensions of leadership except for Envisioning (or future thinking). Future thinking is important in our turbulent world, so I decided to have a closer look at women and envisioning.
Unpacking the research
It turns out that in the research mentioned above, it was the men in the study that rated the women lower on vision – not the women themselves. Ha! The authors came up with three theories to explain why women leaders would be seen as less impressive on envisioning:
Women are equally visionary but in a different way. They are collaborative and involve others, and maybe this doesn’t look as overtly powerful.
Women hesitate to go out on a limb. They lack the presumption of competence that men are seen to have, and prefer to act from the solid ground of facts – what they know they know.
Women don’t put as much stock in the whole vision thing. They value substance over form, have a more practical orientation and are less self-promoting. (Ibarra & Obodaru 2009)
I’d add Theory # 4. The problem lay not in anything the women were thinking or not thinking, doing or not doing, but in what the men were thinking when they rated the women poorly. And who knows what they were thinking. Maybe women’s styles of leadership were simply not comprehensible or identifiable to the male respondents. Maybe women just do vision differently, and many of these men just didn’t get it. It’s possible.
What is envisioning, anyway?
This is a good question. You’ll find as many definitions as there are researchers, ranging from strategic foresight, to identifying opportunities and trends, to imagining the future you want, to the ability to articulate a compelling vision.
I prefer to think of envisioning the future as a big, imaginative process that is not bounded by what is already there on the horizon, but rather focused around what you really want. It’s not about asking ‘what can we do with what we’ve got?’ but ‘what would we really love to do?’ My colleague Rob Balmer talks about this in an article on Future Leadership. Rob cites the example of JFK announcing that he wanted to send a man to the moon and get him back safely, back in 1961. Imagine that!
Emelia Earhart wanted to fly solo across the Atlantic, and she did it in 1932 at the age of 35. Imagine that! She said, “Please know that I am aware of the hazards. I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be a challenge to others.”
And Malala Yousafzai wants to change the world so that girls’ voices are heard, saying, “One book, one pen, one child, and one teacher can change the world.” She recently celebrated her 18th birthday by opening a school for 200 Syrian girl refugees in Lebanon, funded by the Malala Fund. Imagine that!
Envisioning as deep aspiration
Call me a dreamer, but to me envisioning is about creativity and imagination, about futures that are inclusive, sustainable and good for all. It’s about distinguishing between what’s probable and what’s possible, it’s about critiquing our old assumptions that get in the way of dreaming big. It’s not just about profit or market success, it has to be about more than that. I rather like Google’s vision: Organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful. I can work with that. And what about my own company, Executive Central? Our vision is about a community of executives dedicated to unlocking the full potential of its members, their organisations and the communities they serve. I can work with that too!
OK so what does envisioning look like?
There are no rules here, but a few tips include:
Create an open environment where people feel comfortable, courageous and inspired to say what they really want.
Think about the probable and preferred futures.
What will the future look like if we do nothing different? What future would we have if we could have whatever we wanted?
Express your vision in affirmative language
Remember it’s both a collective and individual activity
Resist the urge to critique or say ‘that wouldn’t work because’
Examine and critique the assumptions that stop you going for what you want
And in the end, why bother?
Passion is the jet fuel that propels you through all the turbulence of life! It’s not enough to just go for what you know you can get. Go for something that’s really great, something that brings benefits to you and all around you.
Be courageous. It’s the only place that’s not overcrowded!!! There’s no time for mediocrity. This is no damned dress rehearsal. You’ve got one life so just lead it.