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on Leading the Next Generation


What Stands in the Way of Female Leaders? (Part Two)

Yesterday, I launched a blog series on what prevents women from leading. Early on, even gifted girls shy away from leading because they don’t want to be disliked or seen as “bossy.” I mentioned how Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, author of Lean In, and director on the board at Disney, has launched a campaign called Ban Bossy to reduce the use of this word that seems to hinder girls from stepping up to lead.

responsible kids

During an interview at Facebook headquarters, she was quick to point out that she’s not encouraging rude, mean-girl behavior or bullying. “Leadership is not bullying and leadership is not aggression,” Sandberg said. “Leadership is the expectation that you can use your voice for good. That you can make the world a better place.”

Great Leadership is Transcendent                                                                                                     

Herein lies the purpose of leadership. It should transcend both genders. I believe leadership gifts lie inside both males and females, and that both deserve equal rights and opportunities to flourish in a healthy context. But like ethnicity and culture, I believe both sexes should be about something bigger than mere gender. This was what made Nelson Mandela’s leadership so powerful. Once he was elected, he recognized that his presidency could not merely be about acquiring benefits for his race. He made moves that were inclusive of both blacks and whites—and won the country over. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was about equal rights for all minorities, not just his own race. Mandela and King’s ethnicity made them equal but unique.

And so it is with gender. They should be viewed as equal but different. They each make unique contributions, yet neither is superior.

college students

When we fail to make this recognition, we fail as leaders. I have watched male leaders form a “Good Ol’ Boys” club that, for all practical purposes, leaves females without a place (except to serve in subordination to them). At the same time, I’ve watched women struggle with feminism as well, perhaps due to our world’s lopsided bias toward men. Once they gain authority, they find themselves pushing for their own agenda and recognition —and miss the big picture. I recently made a point about males honoring females while speaking at a college leadership event.  Afterwards, a female student emailed me saying that she and her fellow female student leaders felt patronized and insulted by my remarks. I was able to recognize what she was trying to say, but frankly, her issue blinded her from seeing anything outside of her narrow perspective. It was one big adventure in missing the point.

For the record, I am far from a perfect leader, and I don’t claim to be anything but human. However, throughout my career, I have welcomed skilled women to lead the departments or organizations in which I’ve been involved. As I served in colleges, I was so grateful for the female leaders who stepped into major responsibilities; in many cases, there were no males who were able or willing. Even today, more than half of the key leadership roles at Growing Leaders (where I am president) are filled with marvelously gifted women. Strong yet sensitive. Tough and tender. Their gifts are larger than mine in so many categories. And I celebrate that fact.

The bottom line? I think a healthy combination of gender and leadership occurs when:

  • Quality leadership is about gifts more than gender.
  • Both genders are equal but bring unique perspectives to the table.
  • We celebrate and value the differences both genders possess.
  • We allow the best idea to win out and guide the team, rather than the “best leader”.

Monday, we’ll look at some gifted female leaders who paved the way for others. Until then, let me know your thoughts on this issue.


Looking to develop leaders? Check out

Habitudes: Images That Form Leadership Habits and Attitudes



  1. Melissa D. on March 21, 2014 at 9:09 am

    Thanks for taking up this conversation. It’s an important one! You write in your article that “[b]oth genders are equal but bring unique perspectives to the table” and that “we celebrate and value the differences both genders possess.” While I agree that there may be some VERY BROAD generalizations that we can make about men and women, I am not sure that this is a helpful thing to focus on in a discussion about leadership. Our perceptions of what “men are like” and “what women are like” certainly exist — and continue to be perpetuated in many ways in our culture. Our perceptions and assumptions need to be acknowledged and recognized. And then perhaps, set aside. There are assertive women and there are introverted men. Is one quality really more inherently masculine and another more feminine? In my experience I have found that personality, character, and skills play a far more significant role in leadership ability and quality than gender. I hope that conversations about “banning bossy” and articles like yours will help to keep moving the conversation about leadership in this direction — past gender and into a place of recognizing the role of personality in leadership style and the importance of character and skills in leadership ability. It’s this direction that I’m looking forward to moving with my students and I think that the Habitiudes resources will be helpful for this!

  2. Happy Thorp on March 22, 2014 at 9:51 am

    Tim, thanks for starting this conversation; it’s such an important one. I agree with Melissa’s observation below that we need to acknowledge our perceptions and assumptions before we can set them aside for something better, and I think it’s conversations like this one that help us do that.

    “Bossy” is such an interesting word – it means “like a boss”, and yet it’s generally considered negative when applied to women. It inherently suggests that leading – being the boss – isn’t something we should do. And yet many of us do have leadership gifts…. and we were meant to use them. I’d love to see you explore in more depth a couple of questions you’ve already raised in passing in this series: first, you said (in your first post), “In regards to the issue of women in the workplace, they connect with the females they lead based on their strengths and personality.” True – but should women only lead women? Or is there incredible value value in raising women to top tier leadership positions over men and women precisely because of what they uniquely bring to the table? and second) in situations like you mention in this post, where “in many cases, there were no males who were able or willing” to lead – is that the only time women should be allowed to step up? Is it preferable for men to lead but acceptable for women to lead if there aren’t any men?

    I believe leadership gifts transcend gender, that ultimately gender has very little to do with what we’re called to – but these questions reflect assumptions and perspectives that are very real – perspectives that women *will* encounter as they embrace their leadership gifts and pursue their dreams. I think it’s important to raise these questions honestly and fairly, explore the roots of these perspectives in history and culture, and see where change is needed.

    Looking forward to the rest of this series – I think you’re demonstrating “honor” towards women in a very practical way as you write it. Thank you.

    • Tammy Staton on March 24, 2014 at 8:22 am

      After years of suffering sexual abuse and suppressing, what I thought I had to be ashamed of, I realized that if U want to lead Women, I and they want Honesty and Transparency. Women by nature are nurturing and strong, sometimes I believe it’s the Misery that makes our Ministry, when a Women has a calling of GOD on her life, she will reach Millions, His word says so! It was when I stepped out in Faith and got out of the boat and walked across the water to JESUS like Peter did, that GOD broke the chains of bondage on me, to see the World and other Women in a whole new light, Thank You for shedding light on Women in this dark world :):):) I have reached out to Women in Human Trafficking in Costa Rica on a recent Mission Trip, it gave them hope to see GOD’s light shining through me and my pain. It encouraged them that there is hope, and if you deal with pain as it comes, you won’t waste 30 yrs of your life like I did, trying to cover up the pain through broken marriages, alcohol and bad decision making!!! Have a Blessed Day 🙂

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What Stands in the Way of Female Leaders? (Part Two)