True leadership occurs when someone takes responsibility for a problem - not from acts of courage or their position. An inbuilt, global bias for a masculine leadership model fundamentally limits how we understand leadership. By ignoring 50% of the world's population, we've defined leadership as dominant behaviours and outdated concepts of courage and heroism. As my wife recently pointed out, how many leadership books are written by women? And those that are, we tend to call 'self-help' books. It's time for a change.
The question is, does the act of leadership emerge from individual bravery or a sense of responsibility?
Let's start with definitions to answer this question. There are many definitions of leadership; MindTools has a nice one that states that leadership occurs when individuals "assist themselves and others in doing the right things." Individuals in leadership roles, according to this definition, "set direction, build an inspiring vision, and create something new." Leadership is about determining where you need to go as a team or organization to "win," ...it is dynamic, exciting, and inspiring."
In the Webster and Cambridge dictionaries, bravery is demonstrating "mental or moral strength to face danger, fear, or difficulty" or simply "having no fear of dangerous or difficult things." To show bravery, you must be willing to face a difficult task that could harm you and have the strength to do so.
I believe we frequently think of a soldier as brave in the face of an enemy or as some hero who stands firm against all odds. Consider the portrayal of leadership in films such as Braveheart. It can also mean demonstrating courage in the face of illness or adversity. Most people, I believe, know someone who has faced a significant illness, a setback in life, or a blow to their self-esteem and then demonstrated exceptional character to persevere and hold their head high. This is also courageous.
Webster's dictionary defines responsibility as having a sense of obligation to someone, to be in a position of authority, or to have a task or set of tasks to complete for someone else. It's difficult to deny that when we define a leader's role, it is fundamentally about accepting responsibility for some set of tasks, metrics, or a group of people.
Which of these factors - bravery or responsibility - plays a more important role in leadership. When I interview individuals in leadership roles, their focus on and a sense of responsibility for a problem, a team, or an organization stands out to me.
That's not to say that the importance of being brave to lead has not routinely come up. Taking on the most difficult challenges in an organization necessitates bravery. You don't put yourself out there in the world and propose solutions unless you're brave. However, what stands out is the importance of responsibility in directing bravery toward an overall purpose.
Take, for example, Boris Johnson. I was recently involved in a discussion focused on answering the question, is Mr Johnson a brave man? The argument in his favour focused on his incredible sticking power and ability to ignore others. Add to that his March trip to Kiyev, and you have a picture of a brave man. Willing to face difficulty and physical danger to keep control. This image fits a heroic leadership stereotype, and it is an image that movies and biographies routinely glorify. The argument against Mr Johnson's bravery centred on why he is staying, which appear to be a refusal to accept responsibility for his actions and not from a sense of responsibility to do what is best for the country.
This brings us back to why women make exceptional leaders; they take responsibility for the group and look beyond their gender. As I've interviewed different people playing different leadership roles, I've found that true leadership manifests itself in people as a willingness to face problems and challenges in their personal and professional lives that others might have avoided. It could be a problematic team or group with behavioural issues. Or it could be cleaning up a bad project and putting in the long hours required to complete it. In short, these individuals accept responsibility for problems, often not their own making. In many cases, the option to do nothing or leave things as they are is always there. People in the past have done this, but a sense of responsibility motivates these individuals to find a solution.
Tackling these leadership challenges required the individual to accept, and often seize, responsibility and have the courage to do so. Taking responsibility means exposing yourself to something going wrong and people not liking you or disagreeing with your point of view.
When we recognize that leadership starts with taking responsibility, it fundamentally changes how we view leadership. We can stop seeing it as a masculine act of dominance over others but as the search for solutions. We can reframe the type of courage required in our leaders and allow them to be less heroic but no less brave. And it forces us to look beyond an individual's self-assurance by asking does this person take responsibility for their surroundings.
To conclude, while leadership does require courage, courage without a sense of responsibility quickly turns into arrogance and a sense of entitlement. Leadership is the willingness to take responsibility, to say, "I believe this is the right thing to do, it may hurt me, I may not even know how to achieve it, or even if it will always be the right thing," and I will put myself out there to move it forward.
We need more female leaders who can help us break the mould of masculine leadership built on a heroic model of leadership, not a sense of responsibility for others and our communities. Here's to seeing leadership for what is it, responsibility plus the courage to persevere.