Think of a Leader. Who did you picture?

It was a fascinating article in the NY Times, about a management training exercise that directs groups of people to draw a leader. Originally designed to bypass detailed verbal discussion about leadership in groups where multiple languages were spoken, the assignment merely asked participants to sketch their conception of a leader, with as much detail as possible.

I was especially interested because this draw-a-leader technique was one I have used, many times, in workshops around teacher leadership, for diverse audiences. I can testify that if you want to clear a room of school administrators, who suddenly have to step out in the hallway for an ‘emergency’ call, start passing out chart paper, crayons, and markers–and ask them to draw something.

Management trainers and organizational psychologists who use this exercise agree:

In terms of gender, the results are almost always the same. Both men and women almost always draw men. Even when the drawings are gender neutral [which is uncommon], the majority of groups present the drawing using language that indicates male (he) rather than neutral or female. And yet, clients often insisted that what they meant by “he” is actually “both.”

Interesting. Because from my (admittedly unscientific) sample, female teachers, when asked to draw a teacher leader, draw themselves. Details include bulging tote bags, thought bubbles with visions of dynamic schools and thriving kids, the occasional placard. There are often mountains (to climb) in the background—and clever fine points like bags under eyes, sensible shoes, mandatory pockets and mugs of coffee.

I haven’t done a workshop since the pandemic began, but I am certain that teachers creating an image of a professional leader these days would sketch her wearing a mask, holding her mouse and sitting in front of little Zoom-heads, reminding kids to unmute.

Teacher leaders are pragmatic. They know taking on leadership roles means expanding the workload that already consumes their life. They understand that the only definition of leadership that matters in Ed World is keeping one’s promises. Getting stuff–the right stuff–done. Gender is irrelevant, they’ll tell you.

So why do we perceive leadership as a predominantly male characteristic?  

Holding unconscious assumptions about gender affects our ability to recognize emerging leadership. Studies confirm what many women have long known: even getting noticed as a leader in the workplace is more difficult for women than for men. And doubly difficult for black women.

There’s also that dogged, pragmatic streak where women just keep going: Witness the winner of the 2018 Boston Marathon, Desiree Linden, who considered dropping out, but rallied to finish first. There was a lot of blah-blah about physiology–proportions of body fat and pain tolerance–when considering the higher dropout rate for men, under terrible weather conditions.

Maybe, however, the kind of leadership that lets women place first in the Boston Marathon, as well as the classroom, involves something else: persistence through unimaginably difficult conditions. This has been borne out every day, during the pandemic and election season. Think of Stacey Abrams and her crew.

In a thought-provoking blog entitled Why Teachers are Walking Out, Seth Nichols (after noting that he’s the rare male in a female-dominated profession) kicks off with the following comment:

I am often confounded at what I have seen my coworkers silently acquiesce to, happily playing along, fueled only by the sense of the purpose they work from. I am not surprised that teachers in many states have had walkouts. I am surprised that they waited so long to start. The walkouts aren’t really ultimately about “pay,” the face usually presented. Women are done being taken advantage of.

It’s a great piece–recommended–but it ends with Nichols declaring that he’s walking out for good, at the end of the year, because he (unlike the patient and persevering doormat-women he works with) is really done with being taken advantage of, the petty daily humiliations of teaching.

So who’s the leader? The one with the dogged sense of purpose, or the one who feels disrespected and splits?

A YouGov survey in 2018 asked  “Do you personally hope that the United States elects a woman president of the United States in your lifetime, or not?” Sixty-six percent of all respondents said yes, while 34 percent said no–and 59 percent of Republicans were clear: They aren’t hoping for a woman president in their lifetimes.

There were few women who breached the Capitol during last week’s insurrection—notably ‘bullhorn lady’ who gave explicit directions to rioters on where to find their goal destinations. (My first thought, watching the video, was that she sounded like a teacher.) Mostly, however, the insurrectionists were angry white men.

Among the various forms of violence on display, one has been largely overlooked: misogyny, or hatred toward women. Yet behaviors and symbols of white male power were striking and persistent features of the riots. Members of the overwhelmingly male crowds defending a president well-known for his sexist attacksembraced male supremacist ideologieswore military gear and bared their chests in shows of masculine bravado. They destroyed display cabinets holding historical books on women in politics.

Members of the mob broke into [Pelosi’s] office and vandalized it. Items like mail, signs and even her lectern proved to be particularly popular trophies – symbolizing an attack on Democrats and the House Speaker, but also against one of the most powerful women in American politics.

This is not to say that the riots weren’t about racism—they clearly were. And now—TODAY!!—we have a woman of color as our Vice-President. I hope she becomes a pragmatic leader, keeping her promises and demonstrating persistence when the going gets tough. I also hope that the fact of her leadership becomes unremarkable here in the United States, as it is around the globe.

Until that day, we are operating under an outdated conception of just what a leader looks like.

Picture a leader. Who do YOU see?

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