Woman Leader And The Visionary Gaze–M.S. Srinivasan

Much has been said and written about the “Vision Thing” in management literature.  The competency of “envisioning” is now considered as a crucial and indispensable leadership trait.  This brings us to the question how woman leaders fare as visionaries? This is the question which is discussed in some detail in an interesting article in Harvard Business Review, “Woman and The Vision Thing” by Herminia Ibarra and Otillia Obaduru.  [1st January 2009] This essay is a review of the HBR article in the light of an integral vision of management.

Key-perspectives: Does the woman leader lack vision?; woman are different kind of visionaries; woman are more pragmatic and factual; woman leaders don’t give much importance to the value of vision; implications for woman leaders; integral view: woman leaders have to develop the visioning competence and how to do it; however, woman leader need not be very much concerned with the “vision thing” because she has other competencies which are in harmony with the future needs of the corporate world; and finally, why is this obsession with reaching the top?

Does the Woman Executive Lack Vision?

In business and management, woman are steadily marching ahead to occupy more and more of the male dominated domains.  But still the number and proportion of woman in top management position is very less.  The glass-ceiling at the top is still mostly opaque and impenetrable to woman.  Many woman executives believe that one of the major reasons behind this glass-ceiling at the top is the bias and prejudice against woman in evaluating their leadership potential.   Here comes the importance of this research study by Ibarra and Obaduru of Insead Fountainbeau of France.  In a 360° assessment of participants in Insead’s executive education programmes, female leaders received higher ratings than male leaders in most dimensions of leadership.  But in one dimension, envisioning, women were rated less than men.  If this conclusion can be taken as a dominant perception or trend among executives in the West, then there is no real prejudice against woman, atleast in the West.   On the contrary, most of the respondents in the research survey viewed woman as better leaders than men in all the other eight leadership qualities.  As Ibarra and Obaduru point out: “If there was a gender bias, it favoured female leaders.  Male observers scored female leaders significantly higher than they scored male leaders on seven dimensions and female observers scored them significantly higher on eight.”  However according to Ibarra and Obaduru, this perceived lack of strength in envisioning can “stop woman from getting to the top” because this quality or capability is viewed as the most important and indispensable for top leadership.

Before coming to the implications of these conclusions for woman leaders, we must have some understanding of this “Vision Thing.”  What is exactly this “Vision” which is so much talked about in management books?  Ibarra and Obaduru define vision as “the ability to recognize new opportunities and trends in the environment and develop a new strategic direction for the enterprise.”  Making a clear distinction between leader and manager, Ibarra and Obaduru, regard envisioning as a crucial and core ability of a leader.

“The distinction between management and leadership has long been recognised.  Most agree that managing for continuous improvement to the status quo is being different from being a force for change that compels a group to innovate and depart from the routine.  And if leadership is essentially about realizing change, then crafting and articulating a vision of a better future is a leadership prerequisite.  No vision, no leadership.”

This brings us to the question is this supposed lack of vision only a perception or a reality? Ibarra and Obaduru try to answer this question by a critical examination of the possible causes or factors which might have led to this perception.  They present three explanations based on their discussions and interviews with the participants in the executive development programmes of Insead.

Women are different kind of visionaries

Woman visionaries tend to arrive at their vision or strategy through a more collaborative and participative process than their male counterparts.  They try to involve all the stakeholders in the visioning or strategy-making.  On the other hand male visionaries tend to be more directive and individualistic.  They try to impose on others or inspire others with their ideas which are their personal creations.  For example, Vivienne Cox, CEO of BP Alternative Energy is a visionary leader who steered BP successfully into the alternative energy sector.  She describes herself more as a “catalyst” than a visionary.  Her approach to directing change is to create a collaborative environment wherein new opportunities or potentialities are identified and actualized through a process of consultation, dialogue and discussion with the stakeholders.  One of her lieutenants described Vivien’s approach as “She thinks about how to create incentives or objectives so that the organization will naturally find its own solutions and structures.  It encourages people to be thoughtful, innovative and self-regulating.”

Woman are more pragmatic and factual

The woman leaders tend to be more practical and action-oriented with a strong emphasis on facts and details.  In communicating their vision, woman leaders rely more on facts and the practicability rather than on rhetoric and emotion.  The US presidential candidates Obama and Hillary Clinton are classic examples of the difference in style.  Obama presented himself as a charismatic and visionary leader with a message of hope and change and a great future through his captivating oratory and rhetoric but with nothing substantial to support his vision.  On the other hand, Hillary Clinton presents a different conception of leadership when she said, “A President no matter how rhetorically inspiring, still has to show strength and effectiveness in the day-to-day handling of the job—You have to act.  In my own experience, sometimes its putting one foot in front of the other, day after day.”

Woman leaders don’t give much Importance to the value of vision

Woman leaders give a much greater importance to practicability of the idea based on hard facts than abstract or emotionally charged, “Visions.”   Some of them tend to look down upon such visions as something negative.  As Ibarra and Obaduru state: “We suspect woman may not value envisioning as a critical leadership competency to the same extent as men do or may have a more skeptical view of envisioning part in achieving result”  and quotes a woman CEO, “We are in danger today of being mesmerized by people who play with our reptilian brain.  For me it is manipulation.  I can do the storytelling too but I refuse to play on people’s emotions.”

The Implications for Woman Leaders

What are the conclusions and implications of the Insead research study for the future of woman as leaders?  First, the perceived lack of vision among woman may not be entirely a prejudice.  Since most of woman executives pride themselves on being practical, no-nonsense leaders anchored on facts and tend to underplay the role of vision, they may not make any effort to develop this capability which is considered as primary and indispensable quality by most of the research studies and surveys on leadership.  This will prevent the woman leaders from reaching the top because they will be considered as incapable of any radical change from the present facts and steer the organisation to uncharted future possibilities.  In other words, without developing the competency of envisioning woman leaders will remain only as managers but can never become great leaders.  So woman leaders should not be dismissive of the “Vision thing” but make a conscious effort to cultivate this important leadership quality.  This is the concluding observations of Ibarra and Obaduru, articulated briefly in the following words:

“The challenge facing woman then is to stop dismissing the vision-thing and make vision one of the things they are known for.  In a senior leadership role, it’s the best use of their time and attention.  It’s a set of competencies that can be developed.  And of all the leadership dimensions we measured it’s the only thing holding woman back.”

The Integral View

In the integral perspective, every individual, Man or Woman is psychologically androgynous.   There is a truth in the traditional conception that each gender have some inborn natural qualities.  But these qualities are not something exclusive but express some dominant tendencies of nature.  The other side of truth is that there is a Man in every Woman and a Woman in every man.  In the course of human evolution the gender-specific qualities or capabilities tend to colour or dominate the nature and personality of the individual.  For example, the average male-psyche tends to be ego-centric and selfish.  On the other hand the average female psyche is less selfish and more other centric.  Similarly, emotional intelligence, pragmatic intuition into the present actualities or immediate possibilities, executive competence, caring for people, nurturing community, participative or catalyzing leadership, attention to detail, drawing practical conclusion form observed facts are some of the natural inclination or competencies of woman.  On the other hand, conceptual intelligence, abstract theorizing, big picture thinking, futuristic scenario building, individualistic ambition for power, wealth and enjoyment, directive leadership by wielding  power over others through authority, command and control, drawing philosophical or metaphysical conclusion from observed data or independent of it─these are some of the natural inclination or competencies of the male psyche.

The ability to look beyond present facts and immediate practicalities and envisioning long-term future possibilities or opportunities, is a natural competence of a well-developed male psyche.  But it is not as natural or easy to the more pragmatic and down-to-earth female psyche.  This is perhaps the reason why most of the female leaders look down upon vision with suspicion and negativity.  The integral view agrees with Ibarra and Obaduru that woman leaders should not dismiss vision but have to acquire this competence.  However, the woman executive need not be very much concerned about this “Vision Think” because she has other competencies which have a greater relevance for the future like for example the competencies of collaborative and shared visioning and strategizing or being a catalysts of growth like that of Vivienne Cox of BP Alternative energy whom we have mentioned earlier.  Interestingly, in another article on vision in HBR─in the same issue in which the article of Ibarra had appeared-James Kouzes and Barry Posner argue that the concept of leaders “as individuals must be visionaries” is a “bad idea” and “as leaders spend time looking ahead, they must not put too much stock in their own prescience.”  Based on their own extensive research on leadership, Kouzes and Posner conclude:

“As counter intuitive as it might seem then the best way to lead people into the future is to connect with them in the present.   The only visions that take root are shared vision─and you will create them only when you listen very very closely to others, appreciate their hopes and attend to their needs.  The best leaders are able to bring their people into the future because they engage in the oldest form of research.  They observe the human condition.”

The woman leaders with their natural emotional intelligence, empathy, factual grasp and collaborative style of leadership are better equipped then men for creating this kind of shared vision.  In a still another article in HBR, Gary Hamel present a list of 25 management challenges of the future which are the result of intense dialogues, debate and discussion among a group of leading management thinkers, professional and entrepreneurs.  Among them the following four are in harmony with the conclusion of Kouzes and Posner and very much match with the natural competence of woman leaders.

  • Fully embed the ideas of community and citizenship in management systems.  There’s a need for processes and practices that reflect the interdependence of all stakeholder groups.
  • Redefine the work of leadership.  The notion of the leader as a heroic decision maker or grand visionaries is untenable.  Leaders must be recast as social-systems architects who enable innovation and collaboration.
  • Share the work of setting direction.  To engender commitment, the responsibility for goal setting must be distributed through a process in which share of voice is a function of insight, not power.
  • Depoliticize decision making.  Decision processes must be free of positional biases and should exploit the collective wisdom of the entire organisation and beyond.

However, as we have suggested earlier, the woman leader should not neglect the potentialities of a long-term visioning competence.  But what is precisely the essence of this competence?  It is the capability to understand and shape the future.  How to go about in acquiring this competence?  There are many paths and methods.  Here is a path which is in sync with the nature and capabilities of woman leaders.

The first step is to carefully study the life, thought-process and insights of great prophets, visionaries and futurists who have thought about the future.  The woman leader may choose any one of these visions which she feels as more true or has a greater relevance for the future or else she can arrive at a synthesis of these visions and use it as a light or inspiration for understanding the future.  The next step is to use her inborn pragmatic intuition and executive competence to figure out the practical implications of this understanding for shaping the future in her own domain of leadership.

A good comprehension of past history and present trends help in futuristic thinking; an intuitive or holistic grasp of the past and present actualities can open our mind to an intuitive understanding of the unmanifest future possibilities. And finally, futuristic thinking requires foresight and intuition.  The woman leader must consciously cultivate and develop these intuitive faculties.  She already has an inborn and natural intuition in her emotional and pragmatic mind.  She has to complement it by developing the intuition of her conceptual mind, which is essential for long-term visioning.

There are two more point which I would like to briefly outline here before concluding this article.  The “Vision Thing” may not be the only or even the main factor which is preventing the woman executive from reaching the top.  There may be other more pressing factors like for example her maternal responsibilities.  As Meera Sanyal, Country Executive, India, Royal Bank of Scotland, points out: “Woman do not go high in their career because they make choices at these inflection points.  Which Mother will not choose child over career.”  Louan Brizendine, a neuro psychiatrist, in a column in Harvard Business Review, expresses a similar view based on neuroscience.  According to Louan, an executive is professionally prepared for the CEO position when he or she is around 40.  At this age, while a male executive is fully ready, a female executive who is also a mother is not neurologically ready to handle dual responsibilities of corporate stewardship and motherhood.  So she has to make a choice and most of them choose motherhood over the C-suite.

There is one more question which may not be directly related to the subject of our discussion but which a woman executive has to ask herself.  Why is this obsession with getting to the top slot? Sometimes companies, driven by the ambitions of its leaders, get into a similar type of obsession, with growth, size or market-captialisation, to become the top 10 among Fortune 500.   But as Peter Drucker puts it bluntly, “The idea that growth is by itself a goal is a delusion there is no value in a company getting bigger.”  It is more or less the same with the individual obsession to get into the top.  What does it matter if a woman executive doesn’t sit on the CEO throne?  What is more important, to become a better human being or to be a CEO?  For a woman, to be a good Mother, a good housewife, a caring and compassionate human being, and a leader, who even while developing her professional competence, is also a source of help, growth and wellbeing to people around her, lead to a much greater fulfillment than becoming a CEO.  This may be a much more difficult ideal to achieve than achieving the corner seat.  But it leads to a more balanced growth and greater personal fulfillment than a more or less exclusive pursuit of professional ambition to reach the top.  In fact, such an aggressive pursuit of power and status may dry up the heart, which is a serious personal loss for a woman. When a woman leader makes the attempt to arrive at this balance, she may also become a CEO, like for example Indra Nooyi, CEO of Pepsi, who is a role model of work-life balance for a woman executive.  But it doesn’t matter much, if she couldn’t become a CEO, like Indra Nooyi because she has grown as a human being.

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