How (Some) Women Lead and What They Can Teach

Note:  This was originally published on March 4, 2013


After a lunch on Friday, one of my students told her female classmate, and then told me, “You’re a pusher.” I’m not sure if today’s students understand that back in the day, a pusher, was a drug pusher,* but they knew it still didn’t sound so good, as one hastened to add, “I mean it in a good way.”  I WAS pushing them.  I had invited these two women to a small lunch to engage with two of my political heroes, Dave Katz and Jill Alper.  Jill and Dave exemplify why I am waging my little intellectual war against the idea of “the” leader.

One of the major problems with the idea of “the” leader is that it, like arguably all language, springs in metaphors from the physical world. Usain Bolt leads. See him?  Wow.  So also, we see Alexander the Great who is said to have led his men into battle from the front.  “The leader” conjures a mental picture, no?  ONE is in front.  All behind.  One direction, one vision, one destination, one man (usually)out front.  Ducks in a row.  Or geese in their famed aerodynamic “V.”  My friend Jim Kouzes argued with me last week that the geese need a leader, and he hastened to add with his sophisticated view, “but those geese can and do change who is in the lead.”  I love that Jim (and co-author Barry Posner) see such teamwork, and that they argue in their book, “anyone can lead from anywhere.”  Still, I must reject the notion of a single leader and a single direction.  In my view, in any good organization, there are multiple initiatives, multiple directions, multiple perspectives, multiple skillsets, and yes, multiple leaders. Ain’t no one leader and one direction.

Jill and Dave (neither is THE leader of their children, by the way) have never been and probably never will be elected political leaders. To be sure, Jill has been authorized as “chief political strategist,” and Dave as “finance director” or “campaign manager.” But each has frequently LED “the leader,” their candidate or elected official.  On Friday, they led the discussion with my students, most of whom had told me that they want to run for office (one day to become “the leader”).  And I heard some of my female students with new ears, as they were leading me. Here’s how.

Three of the women (including the two who noted that I was “pushing” them to consider political careers) told me what countless women have told me:  We don’t need, or really even want to be the candidate and elected official. On different occasions they have talked to me about how they are happy supporting, working from “the middle” or “behind.” How great for them!  They can lead as Jill and Dave have — because of the respect they earn by asking hard questions, modeling hard and honest work, and caring for and including others.  Good for them.  Whether they land in business, government, schools, etc., they will push, pull, nudge, encourage — lead – great things to happen without ever having to be THE leader.

Yet I can’t help but wonder about US!!!  Aren’t these ladies — who don’t have a great ego-need to be up front — exactly the kind of people we could use in Congress?  People who don’t have to “win,” or be “acclaimed,” or need to get re-elected to “the” job?  People for whom compromise might be seen as sensible rather than as weak-willed defeat?  Isn’t it time to stop looking for THE leader, glorifying (and later scapegoating) THE leader? Why perpetuate this falsehood that’s wound like an ugly vine around the language and metaphor of the leader — that the leader knows all, stands above the rest, and is somehow special?

Wouldn’t it be so much fun to see,  convince to run, and elect some men and women who are passionate about the work, the people, the truths(s), but don’t need to hear, “You THE Man!”** 

Forget THE leader and

Lead with your best self!


* For a trip back to the day, check out, “Pusherman,” the classic track from Curtis Mayfield’s album, “Super Fly.”

** For you business readers you may hear echoes of Jim Collins’ great research on “level 5 leaders,” who he says paradoxically combine the “deep personal humility” with “fierce resolve.”

  • Dan,
    I love this one, for a couple of reasons. First, any soul (male or female) whose ego is less important than the good of the whole is someone we need in office. Often they need to be persuaded to run, but exhorting, asking them to run is a vital duty of all of us. If you are all about the work and not about the fame: run, baby, run!
    Second, I agree that that best leaders are those who create a glide path for others to lead, who do the hard work of getting out of the way to enable other voices. It’s a lesson I most need to learn.
    Thanks babe!

  • I think it would be nice to see some smaller egos in politics and representation, but I’m not sure that it’s possible without some encouragement from “pushers” like you. The determination and tough skin required for public office are often paired with personalities of strong extroversion and confidence. While women might hold these necessary qualities, they are often discouraged as “too aggressive” by society. Perhaps we not only need to encourage more humble men and women to enter office, but also encourage “pushers” like yourself to continue to rally and reassure these individuals! Thanks again for all your encouragement!

  • Great read! Too many leaders in our organization are hanging on to status quo (Let’s do what those before us did. Let’s just hold this pattern until we retire!). Nothing could be more detrimental to an organization! We truly need to lead from where we are. I say grab the standard, hold it high and charge to the top of the hill, but we all need to move now, not just one! Let’s go! What are we waiting for? No one rides in on a white horse and saves us! It is what we collectively do with our diverse talents to work the mission and embrace the vision that will get us where we need to go. Not when….but now! Let’s roll!

  • I could have use Section 380.1561 that went into affect this year that your wife signed before leaving office. It’ll be good for today kids. I quit school at 15 and had no credits when I went back and took so many classes over the course of many years to get my HS diploma. I took this government class wanting to learn about our government. This class graded us by how well we do on the three tests. I somehow failed the first test so I did the only thing I could do was be absent for the next test and then when I return I take the test in the library. I couldn’t get a second F and I hate to say this but I cheated and used the book. I had it planned-planning is always good. I got a D+. WHAT!? The third test everyone had to be there-no make up. The third test covered what was on the first two test and I got a D- so I past the class with a D- though it did help me get my diploma then and not wait another 4 months to graduate. I would have love to of been able to run for (any) office but I couldn’t even pass a test. I guess the state was lucky your wife became Michigan governor 🙂 Encouraging people to run for office is always good-especially females. Females have been kept back way too long.

    • Sorry, but that is suppose to be a smiling face up there not a frown it came out wrong. Your wife was the best governor.

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