Leadership Presumptions

This is not a leadership “how to” article. It is an article borne out of Women’s History Month and a rumination about leadership and the presumptions on which leaders are or are not chosen.

Dictionary definitions of “leadership” and “leader” are not very illuminating or up-to-date, referring variously to people who lead and giving military personnel or political figures as examples. “Lead” has slightly more helpful definitions such as to guide, direct or manage. See generally Merriam Webster’s Dictionary. However, in popular culture, leadership has become a term of art of greater significance and with a broader scope.

There are many presumptions about leadership that are not borne out by the variety of circumstance that give rise to it. Leadership exists in companies, classrooms, civic organizations, sports teams, families and any other amalgamation of people that have a purpose. Those who emerge as leaders may do so because they are motivators, organizers, consensus builders, orators, perfectionists, or just outright intolerant of indecision. Individuals obtain positions of leadership by vote, appointment, default, happenstance and sometimes by self-declaration. They lead by example, rule-enforcement, inspiration, emulation, empathy, and/or intimidation. They succeed because they are self-aware, smart, driven, collaborative, innovative, have grit, and/or are just plain lucky. And, they fail when they are impatient, intolerant, incompetent, inconsiderate, self-important, and/or just unlucky. They may be respected, revered, reviled, rejected and replaced. Thus, leadership is needed, arises, succeeds, fails and is honored in diverse personalities, for diverse reasons, and under diverse circumstances.

So, how does this intersect with Women’s History Month? Not very well and that is the point. The qualities for leadership are not gender-dependent, but history suggests otherwise. Like its authoritative underpinnings – military leaders and political figures which have tended to a presumption against women – leadership roles have tended to a presumption against women as well. There are many notable exceptions, notable because they were brilliant and courageous women, but also notable because they are exceptions. Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Mother Teresa and Margaret Thatcher are examples of names that resonate leadership, but their resonance is eclipsed by their historical minority.

So, as we celebrate Women’s History Month, there is special reason to celebrate those who rose above the presumptions and made their mark on history. But, presumptions linger which are not borne out by the qualities, circumstances and conditions of successful leaders. We are a country of unique individuals and our gender is among our least unique qualities. The unique qualities of each individual are the qualities that effectuate leadership. I have often heard it said that the world would be a better place if it were ruled by women. I do not necessarily agree. The world would be a better place if it was led by individuals chosen free of presumptions and was instead alive with situation specific merit – gender blind and color blind. I have had the good fortune to have that as my personal history. I am optimistic that we are on the path for it to become our common history as well.

This article first appeared in The Journal Record on March 26, 2021, and is reproduced with permission from the publisher.