So what if you don’t fit the mold of a stereotypical leader? I don’t.
When we picture the proverbial leader, most of the archetypes we go to have a couple of things in common. They’re often white, they’re usually male, and pretty much none of them look like me. But I’m out here teaching, running businesses, and — yes — leading.
In my experience, success comes from doing the best job you can while simultaneously recognizing the biases that exist. Once you know the challenges you’re up against, you can set a strategy to take them on. And I’ve found that the challenges can be surpassed, but you have to recognize that there may be barriers.
The adage that women and minorities have to be twice as good to get half as far unfortunately holds some truth. Multiple studies have confirmed that women and minorities are evaluated more harshly because of their gender or race. Recent examples include resumes with names perceived as belonging to African-Americans receiving fewer callbacks for interviews1 and female professors being rated lower than male counterparts (even in online courses in which two groups of students are told differing genders for the same professor).2 The net result is that women and minorities face implicit biases that require them to always work harder than their white male counterparts to receive the same or better leadership opportunities.
One of the most common reservations I hear from women and minorities is, “I read management advice, and I just can’t see myself saying that or doing that.” The idea that you can’t be this or that needs to be re-examined — or just thrown out. This erroneous belief that you cannot act a certain way when the situation calls for it is beautifully illustrated by a famous Far Side® comic strip. In the first panel of the comic, a group of cows stand in a pasture. But instead of standing on four legs, they are all upright on two legs in a circle, clearly having a conversation. One of the cows acts as a lookout and yells to the others, “Car!” In the next frame, a car full of people drive by and the cows are now on four legs, grazing in the pasture like typical cows. In the final frame, the car has passed and the cows are back upright on two legs chatting away.
The lesson here is when the cows are put in the position of having to act in a certain way — in this case, when they need to present the expected behavior of a farm animal — they do it. They know what to do and, even though it may not be something they are comfortable doing, they do it when they need to.
I often hear people say things like, “That’s not me. I’m not an assertive person. It doesn’t feel authentic to me to behave that way.” This comic strip illustrates a key idea that I have lived by and that I teach in my leadership classes: You can be what you need to be! If you don’t see yourself as a naturally assertive person, if you don’t think you have a strong voice, or if you don’t think you can manage staff. When you need to do something, you can do it.
I had a female student who was not only quiet in the classroom, but felt she had no authority in her management consulting job. In my class one day, she had an epiphany that mirrored the cow cartoon. She realized that even though she wasn’t assertive at work, there were areas of her life where she was assertive, like when she was at home with her three-yearold daughter. She decided then and there to assume that same stance in the workplace. For her, that’s when the switch flipped, and she began to find her assertive voice at work.
"The adage that women and minorities
have to be twice as good to get half as
far unfortunately holds some truth."
You can do the same. You can teach yourself to flip a switch. You’ll often hear people say, “Oh that’s not me.” I always go back to them and say, “That can be you.” Chances are, there are times where it is you, when you have no problem acting that way. Maybe you have a take-charge attitude with your family or in another area of your personal life. You can easily channel that side of your personality at work so that it becomes natural and you feel authentic when acting as a leader.
At first you might not feel comfortable behaving like a leader, but it may be the best thing you ever do professionally. Sometimes you have to act like the cow when the car comes by.
Lakshmi Balachandra, MBA, PhD, assistant professor of entrepreneurship at Babson College and Radiology Leadership Institute® faculty
Bertrand M, Mullainathan S. Are Emily and Greg more employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A field experiment on labor market discrimination. American Economic Review, 2004;94(10), 991–1013. Available at nber.org/papers/w9873.
Boring A, Ottoboni K, Stark P. Student evaluations of teaching (mostly) do not measure teaching effectiveness. Science Open Research. January 7, 2016. Available at bit.ly/2soKMeG. Accessed June 13, 2017.