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Who Do You Picture When You Think of a Leader?

There 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 strategy merely asks 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 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, Dr. Kiefer's 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, and 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.

Nobody's more pragmatic than a would-be teacher leader who knows that taking on leadership roles means expanding the workload. More to the point, teacher leaders understand that the only definition of leadership that matters in education world is keeping one's promises. Getting stuff--the right stuff--done.  Gender is irrelevant, they'll tell you.

 So why do non-educators perceive leadership as a predominantly male thing?

How might holding unconscious assumptions about gender affect people's abilities to recognize emerging leadership? A  study posted by the Academy of Management Journal, seems to confirm what many women have long suspected: getting noticed as a leader in the workplace is more difficult for women than for men. Even when a man and a woman were reading the same words off a script, only the man's leadership potential was recognized.

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 talk 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.

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 (presumably 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 sense of purpose, or the one who gets going?

A YouGov survey recently 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.  Something to consider, when we talk about leadership.

Picture a leader. Who do YOU see?

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