Leadership Lessons Learned from the Playing Fields

When I was in college, I played on a women’s recreational touch football team.  We were known as the Iron Ovaries. Those were the days of women claiming our rightful place in being able to do whatever men could do.  Yes, the times were changing… but have they really? Ask yourself this question:

Are women today seen as men’s equals in their credibility and effectiveness as problem-solvers and as leaders?

“You throw like a girl.”

When this is said to a man, it is a powerful accusation that can send him back to a place of childhood shame in no time flat.  For a boy to be like a girl is to be weak.  So I ask you, how many men do you know who can easily exercise compassion in the course of their leadership?  Do examples of such behavior come to mind in equal numbers among the men and women  leaders within your network?

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Looking to History for Lessons on Leadership

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There is no one right answer, of course.  Likely, it is variable among fields of businessorganizational cultures, and individual differences.  But, I am curious over how we play out or preferably, move on from life’s early lessons so we can lead with a full toolbox of options.  The best toolbox is one that has a “yin” for every “yang” of behavior.  There is a time and a place when all good leaders must be able to display a “steely resolve”, and one where they must be able to exercise “gracious acceptance.”

Subtle Rebuttal

As parents, we would like to think that we are raising our sons and daughters to value who they are and to not get stuck in the traditional sex roles of yester-year.  I am coming to recognize that this is a taller order than I thought.  It plays out in the most subtle of ways.  I have three short vignettes that show the stubborn, unconscious hold that sex role stereotypes have in how we think and act.

We are all “guilty” of stereotyping roles to specific genders. Both men and women do this even though that cognitively most of us agree that these stereotypes should have no place in business. We generally agree it is best to simply make the best use of our human capital without regard to gender. But this always doesn’t play out in a gender-neutral way.

What does this mean for the workplace when so many of us wear these blinders?  Are we unable to recognize the talent and the resources that are plainly right in front of us?

Vignette 1:

I am on the soccer field and it is a very hot day.  The coach motions my 8-year-old son to the sidelines and I ask him if he would like some water.  He takes the bottle of water, but struggles to loosen the cap.  “Here, let me help you,” I say.  He ignores me and walks over to his coach, hands him the bottle and accepts his help.  Apparently, cap-loosening is a “man’s job.”

Vignette 2:

I was almost always present for my sons’ baseball practices.  Often, the coaches solicited extra help from among the dads who were there.  One day, my sons and I were early and I was hitting balls on the diamond for them.  I played ball in high school.  More kids arrived and joined in.  The first coach arrived and I started to hand the bat over to him.

“Oh no,” he said, “you are doing just fine.  Keep going.”

” Why didn’t you tell me you could help?” he added.

“I guess I didn’t want to insert myself in the middle of all that good male bonding going on” I replied.

“That’s silly,” he said, “we need the help.”

I wanted to say, “Well all you had to do was ask, just like you’ve asked every dad who has been out here” (some of whom had chatted about how they had never played organized baseball). Uhhhhh…

However, rather than adding my comment I thought this would be an excellent time to exercise my gracious acceptance and say nothing.

Vignette 3:

Early in my career, I taught psychology and women’s studies courses for undergraduates.  I was extremely well versed on sex role stereotyping.  During this time, I got my first pet, a weeks-old stray kitten.  Having never had pets before, I accepted the vet’s pronouncement that the kitten was male.  It was a bundle of energy and I took to rough-housing with it a lot.  It wasn’t until the kitten went into its first heat that I realized it was female.

Soon after, in the middle of a rough-housing session, I suddenly stopped.  Slowly it seeped into my consciousness that I had thought I was being too rough.  But I wasn’t being any rougher than I had been before.  The only thing that had changed was my knowledge that this was a female kitten.  It was an “Aha, I gotcha” moment in realizing that even though I was an expert on sex role stereotyping, their power still had a hold on my unconscious.  What a lesson!

Looking in the Mirror

I return to my point that even though most of us “know better,” sex role socialization and stereotypes are hard to erase in our unconscious thoughts and actions.  To counter this, for myself, this has meant building in some regular self-reflection check-ins.  I ask myself, “Would my impressions be any different if this person were the other sex?  Would I be acting any differently?”

What are your thoughts and experiences around gender, sex roles and leadership?  How do you keep yourself aware and honest? What has stuck in your mind about sex roles that might need to be reconsidered? I’d love to hear what is going on between your ears!

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Leah Fygetakis is Founder and Principal of Directed Success
She can be reached at leahfygetakis@comcast.net

Image Sources: eteamz.com, med.umich.edu

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2 Responses

  1. Leah,

    I appreciated your approach to the topic of sexual stereotyping. I am a father of two girls, a brother of four sisters (and seven brothers). I believe girls should be given every opportunity as boys and given equal performance they should be given equal pay. Howevery; I will make three comments on this topic:

    1) As you admit, it is not the male species that creates the stereotype. It would in my opinion be better for all of us that we don’t make the man the villan.
    2) There are differences between men and woment. As a result, sexual stereotyping will always exist. It exist in animals and it exist in humans.
    3) I find it interesting that there is very little discussion or compassion for sexual stereotyping of the male.

    Having said this, we all need to work to reduce all sexual stereotypes.

  2. Richard,

    Thank you for posting your comments. I wanted to hold back awhile from responding to allow room for other potential commentators to chime in. Then, as I started to write my comments to your post, I realized that I might turn it into another article. I make no promises for when or whether it will be selected to appear in L2L, but thank you for providing us with more food for thought.

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