Adam Grant’s recent tweet about leadership brings up a couple of interesting questions. With research showing that compassionate and nurturing behaviors are more common among women, why are there so few female leaders in the corporate world? And if true leaders help the powerless, nurture others, and stop injustice (and I wholeheartedly agree with that characterization), then why is it that we so seldom see this kind of behavior at the leadership level in most large organizations?
The simplest answer comes down to language; we’ve confused the term ‘leader’ with ‘manager.’ To explain the critical difference between these terms, let’s take one of the most highly respected, widely admired, and celebrated leaders of the twentieth century, Martin Luther King Jr. As leader of the civil rights movement, MLK inspired millions to join his cause and ignited a true revolution in social justice. But the people who followed MLK didn’t work for him. He didn’t hold any formal power over them. He made people feel heard and understood. He painted a vision of a better future and inspired people enough to advance the cause. In other words, MLK lead with the power of influence.
Corporate executives on the other hand, don’t arrive at their position by the will of the people. They don’t acquire more and more power on their way to the top because they possess the same leadership qualities as an MLK. Their subordinates don’t listen to and obey their commands out of choice, nor because they believe in their manager’s mission. They follow a corporate leader or CEO because they have to. Their livelihood, and in many cases their self-worth, depends on it. It’s more than a little unwise to disobey people who can destroy your career (and in some cases, your self worth) on a whim.
While MLK lead with the power of influence, corporate CEOs and executives lead with the power of authority. The former implies choice, the latter, control.
You might think this is quibbling over semantics. After all, it’s just a word. Is it really that big of a deal? But it matters when the muddying of language starts to muddy our understanding of larger social issues. For example, only 18% of women vs 36% of men say they aspire to be a corporate executive. In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg refers to this as the “Leadership Ambition Gap,” which serves as the central thesis of the book. In essence, the theory tells us that the desire for leadership is culturally created; women are punished for leadership behavior, so they mute their ambition and grow less interested in being leaders over time.
And this is why language matters.
Wanting to be a corporate executive isn’t “leadership ambition.” It’s “executive ambition.” Like a person who wants to be a college professor has “academic ambition.” Ambition is a big goal, an outsized aspiration, an objective, a purpose, a plan, and it can be applied to anything; motherhood, writing, cleanliness, wealth, fitness. If people don’t want to be a corporate CEO, it doesn’t mean they don’t have ambition. It means they don’t want to be a corporate CEO. And it doesn’t mean they don’t have aspirations towards leadership roles. A C-level title is no guarantee that person is a true leader. One look no further than people like Kenneth Lay, Richard Fuld, and Bernie Madoff to prove the case.
Most modern business and leadership books also confuse the issue. True leadership skills are not necessarily the same ones that help you climb the corporate ladder. I’m not taking a moral high ground on this issue. I’m just trying to get everyone to be more honest about what it takes to succeed in that world, and point out that the lack of women at the top of corporate America is by no means an indication that they are any less equipped or less interested in being leaders.
Power need not roar. It need not coerce or control. Women’s impact in this world might be less visible, but it’s no less profound. Just as silk is stronger than steel, appearances can be deceiving.