In the wake of yesterday’s mass shooting in Oregon, it was again reported that the overwhelming majority of such killers are men, not women. Women nearly never engage in such behavior for any reason, including mental illness. Which again raises this question: what if any are the differences between the genders?
In my last blog of the above title, posted on August 24, I wrote (along with Deborah Rhode) that while the existing explanations for why so few women exercise leadership are not incorrect, they are insufficient. “They do not take into account the most simple, yet most powerful, of all explicators: nature. It is women not men who carry children from conception to birth. And it is women not men who breastfeed.” It seems hard to believe, we continued, “that these gender-based differences – physiological and psychological – have no bearing whatsoever on the perennial problem of getting more women to lead.”
The implication is that women might not want to lead as much as men for several reasons, in particular the attention they need and want to pay their children. While there is no mention of children in a recent article titled “Men Want Powerful Jobs More than Women Do” (link below), it is possible if not probable that the findings reported therein relate. The study suggests that women are simply less eager to gain power and, by extension, to exercise leadership, than their male counterparts. Think of it as a cost/benefit calculation: women perceive the costs of professional power as being higher than do men, and the benefits of professional power as being lower.
Interestingly, the anxiety about reporting these findings is palpable even in the article – which describes them as “potentially controversial.” The authors of the piece (all three are women) worry about being seen as biased because they suggest first, that there are differences between men and women and second, that some of these differences might be innate. (One of the authors describes being “booed” at recent conference.)
One of the great scientists of the last half century was Edward O. Wilson, who coined the term “sociobiology.” Notwithstanding his greatness, maybe because of it, in the 1970s and beyond he was castigated for claiming that certain human behaviors – including the mother/child bond – were genetically based. There were differences, Wilson posited, between men and women that could not be explained either on the basis of nurture or of culture. Since then, some progress has been made. Catherine Dulac, another Harvard scientist, speaks openly now, without fear of being ostracized, about “sex typical behaviors,” including those relating to both aggression and parenting.
Still, so far at least the conversation about women and leadership remains stunted. It is fixated either on female psychology, or on the male-dominated workplace. But by excluding the information, the idea, that relevant differences between the genders are genetically based, we confine the conversation to what is politically correct.
To all appearances, the happiest man in America last week was John Boehner, who announced his resignation both as Speaker and as a member of Congress with evident relief – even glee.
With a zip in his step and a song on his lips – “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah, Zip-A-Dee-A” – Boehner gave every indication that he was more than “entirely comfortable” with stepping down. He was thrilled! Which raises the question of why. Why was Boehner that happy to be quitting a post that he had sought and then fought to keep, one to which he had aspired life-long?
John Boehner happens to be a poster-child for my claim that looking at leadership through the lens of the leader is misguided to the point of mistaken. If your intention is to look at leadership carefully and comprehensively a different approach is called for – a systemic approach. Do not, in other words, think leadership. Do think leadership system! The leadership system is not complex. It has only three parts – each of which is, though, of equal importance. The leader is no more critical a component than the other two: the followers (or others), and the contexts within which both leaders and followers are situated.
As will be seen in the following excerpt, I used John Boehner to illustrate the systemic approach in my most recent book, Hard Times: Leadership in America. The book was published in fall 2014. Of course I could not know then what I know now: that by fall 2015 Boehner would be fed up being a victim of the system.
“The so-called crisis of American leadership is much less about leaders themselves and much more about the complex context within which they are expected to operate. Let me give an example – John Boehner. Boehner, a Republican, became speaker of the House of Representatives in January 2011. Beginning on day one he found it difficult to do what he was elected and expected to do – to lead. He found it difficult if not impossible to collaborate with both the Senate and the President. More to the point, he found it difficult if not impossible to lead even House Republicans, his own putative followers in his own chamber.
Was this because Boehner was himself so woefully inept, so utterly clueless that he lacked the capacity to get his House in order? …. Or was there another reason? Was it due instead, or at least in addition, to the circumstance within which Boehner found himself? Was it due instead, or at least in addition, to Washington’s inordinately discordant political culture?
…Right around the time he was elected speaker the context changed. The emergence of the Tea Party, seemingly out of nowhere, altered the Republican Party in ways that Boehner was not prepared for or equipped to contend with….By 2010 Washington had changed and the House had changed right along with it.”
- Did you know that Australia has had five prime ministers in five years?
- Did you know that the recently humiliated and rapidly resigned CEO of Volkswagen, Martin Winterkorn, was known to be particularly autocratic and micro-managerial?
- Did you know that in addition to Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein having (blood) cancer, so in the last few years did the CEO of JP Morgan Chase, James Dimon, have (throat) cancer, and the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffet, have (prostate) cancer?
- Did you know that the power-hungry president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, not only has expanded his power at the expense of the rule of law, but has lectured Turks on what to eat and how many children to have?
- Did you know that Bank of America shareholders lost this week and CEO Brian Moynihan won, when the former failed to stop the latter from keeping the titles of both Chairman and Chief Executive officer?
OK, so maybe they’re not “leaders.” Maybe they’re managers. The point is we’re letting people in positions of authority get away with murder.
OK, so maybe it’s not “murder.” Maybe it’s negligent homicide. The point is no one – no single person – is being held to account for the GM switch defect that has been linked to 124 deaths.
It’s a familiar complaint, familiar from the period subsequent to the financial crisis, when some institutions were finally held to account, but nearly no individuals. However when the wrongdoing – in this case a cover-up of a potentially lethal car part – results in injuries and deaths, to fail to put the blame directly where it lays, to fail to hold responsible the parties who specifically are guilty, is not only infuriating, it’s outrageous. It seems a flagrant abdication of justice.
The usually tough U.S. attorney for Manhattan, Preet Bharrara, defended the outcome of the case, saying his office had “to think long and hard about the appropriate resolution.” However even he admitted that listening to the families who had lost loved ones were “among his most searing moments” as a legal professional. More to the point, the judge who approved the settlement made clear that if there was “any doubt to the criminality of the conduct that doubt [was] put to rest.”
Still, for whatever legal, economic, or systemic reasons, it is the company that will pay the penalty for the wrongdoing. It is not anyone who was at GM, or who still is at GM, several of whom knew for more than a decade about problems with the ignition switch.
It’s this sort of thing that drives some of us nuts. It’s this sort of thing that breaches whatever the remaining trust between those in charge and those who are not. It’s this sort of thing that drove Maggie Beskau, whose daughter was killed in a 2006 car crash in Wisconsin, to exclaim when the settlement was announced, “I don’t understand how they can basically buy their way out of it. They knew what they were doing and they kept doing it.”
I’ve been beating this drum for some time. But every now and then the evidence of followers controlling the action – ordinary people leading the charge – is so compelling that attention must be paid.
Three recent cases in point.
First, in one of the biggest shake-ups in British politics in years, far leftist Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party. In keeping with the surge in support for left of center movements in other European countries such as Greece and Spain, Corbyn defied expectations and upended the establishment. How did he do it? By changing the rules (who could vote and who not). By enlisting grassroots activists. By making heavy use of social-media. By inflaming the widespread anger at economic austerity and social inequality. And by lashing all these to the young and restless.
Second, tens of thousands of Middle Eastern migrants, especially from Syria, have literally forced themselves into, onto, Europe. In the old days such masses of outsiders would’ve simply have been shot or thrown into prison for so flagrantly violating existing borders, for so flagrantly defying orders, and for so flagrantly ignoring the rule of law. Now, though, the authorities are constrained by what they can do. The culture has changed and the technology has changed. And so while even the Germans, not to speak of others such as the Hungarians and Croatians, are finally trying to figure out how to slow or even stop the human tide, generally they have felt constrained from using all but the most limited means of force. This is Europe early in the 21st century – not Europe in the mid-20th.
Third is what happened in Guatemala, where what took place was either a revolution or a political upheaval – depending on how you look at it. In response to mass protests – incited by outrage at a corruption scandal – the president was forced to resign and the longstanding system of cronyism is under attack. Again, people had the capacity to protest because the culture had changed – the powerless could conceive of rising up against the powerful – and the technology had changed. A Facebook page, Justice Now, is being used as clearinghouse for conversations and instigator of political actions. As one prominent businessman put it, social media is “the new actor in the country’s political life.” Under any circumstance would this be remarkable. But in Guatemala the more so, because Guatemalans have historically been much more politically resigned than politically engaged.
Americans should not then be surprised either by the likes of Donald Trump, or for that matter Bernie Sanders. While it’s not clear how any of this will ultimately turn out, what is clear is that the US is not the only place on the planet where people are fed up.