How (Some) Women Lead and What They Can Teach


Note:  This was originally published on March 4, 2013


After a lunch on Friday, one of my students told her female classmate, and then told me, “You’re a pusher.” I’m not sure if today’s students understand that back in the day, a pusher, was a drug pusher,* but they knew it still didn’t sound so good, as one hastened to add, “I mean it in a good way.”  I WAS pushing them.  I had invited these two women to a small lunch to engage with two of my political heroes, Dave Katz and Jill Alper.  Jill and Dave exemplify why I am waging my little intellectual war against the idea of “the” leader.

One of the major problems with the idea of “the” leader is that it, like arguably all language, springs in metaphors from the physical world. Usain Bolt leads. See him?  Wow.  So also, we see Alexander the Great who is said to have led his men into battle from the front.  “The leader” conjures a mental picture, no?  ONE is in front.  All behind.  One direction, one vision, one destination, one man (usually)out front.  Ducks in a row.  Or geese in their famed aerodynamic “V.”  My friend Jim Kouzes argued with me last week that the geese need a leader, and he hastened to add with his sophisticated view, “but those geese can and do change who is in the lead.”  I love that Jim (and co-author Barry Posner) see such teamwork, and that they argue in their book, “anyone can lead from anywhere.”  Still, I must reject the notion of a single leader and a single direction.  In my view, in any good organization, there are multiple initiatives, multiple directions, multiple perspectives, multiple skillsets, and yes, multiple leaders. Ain’t no one leader and one direction.

Jill and Dave (neither is THE leader of their children, by the way) have never been and probably never will be elected political leaders. To be sure, Jill has been authorized as “chief political strategist,” and Dave as “finance director” or “campaign manager.” But each has frequently LED “the leader,” their candidate or elected official.  On Friday, they led the discussion with my students, most of whom had told me that they want to run for office (one day to become “the leader”).  And I heard some of my female students with new ears, as they were leading me. Here’s how.

Three of the women (including the two who noted that I was “pushing” them to consider political careers) told me what countless women have told me:  We don’t need, or really even want to be the candidate and elected official. On different occasions they have talked to me about how they are happy supporting, working from “the middle” or “behind.” How great for them!  They can lead as Jill and Dave have — because of the respect they earn by asking hard questions, modeling hard and honest work, and caring for and including others.  Good for them.  Whether they land in business, government, schools, etc., they will push, pull, nudge, encourage — lead – great things to happen without ever having to be THE leader.

Yet I can’t help but wonder about US!!!  Aren’t these ladies — who don’t have a great ego-need to be up front — exactly the kind of people we could use in Congress?  People who don’t have to “win,” or be “acclaimed,” or need to get re-elected to “the” job?  People for whom compromise might be seen as sensible rather than as weak-willed defeat?  Isn’t it time to stop looking for THE leader, glorifying (and later scapegoating) THE leader? Why perpetuate this falsehood that’s wound like an ugly vine around the language and metaphor of the leader — that the leader knows all, stands above the rest, and is somehow special?

Wouldn’t it be so much fun to see,  convince to run, and elect some men and women who are passionate about the work, the people, the truths(s), but don’t need to hear, “You THE Man!”** 

Forget THE leader and

Lead with your best self!


* For a trip back to the day, check out, “Pusherman,” the classic track from Curtis Mayfield’s album, “Super Fly.”

** For you business readers you may hear echoes of Jim Collins’ great research on “level 5 leaders,” who he says paradoxically combine the “deep personal humility” with “fierce resolve.”