Leaders are supposed to be STRONG, right? Look up strong on Google and click on “images.” Here’s the first of many similar images:
One thing is obvious, right? The figure to the left is a GUY! There are other images on the Google search. More bulging boy biceps. You’ll also see near the top, the classic -Rosie the Riveter pose. Something is wrong here – even with Rosie.
I would argue that depiction – though an empowering image for many women and girls – replicates the strong identification of strength with physical strength, and thus bakes in (an unhelpful) bias in favor of males. We deny ourselves great leaders when we unconsciously associate leadership with physical strength. 21st century leaders don’t need to bench press. Neither the CEO of Facebook, nor the President of the U.S., nor historically “strong” leaders like Jesus, Gandhi or Dr. King had the slightest need to rely upon physical strength.
So, I recommend we do two things. Generally, quit talking about strong leaders. It causes us to screen out women (or shorter men, older people, those with physical disabilities, the kids from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, etc.) If someone says, “we need a strong leader,” ask them just what that means.
The second problem with exulting “strong” leaders is much like the first. Strength connotes subduing, dominating, or overcoming. But how often is that really what we need from a leader? There IS a place for that type of strength; once in a while you over-ride your advisors or allies or conventional wisdom. And it takes a kind of strength to overcome your own doubts, the flu, etc. And sometimes you really go after the competition, calling upon your individual and collective strength. King and Gandhi and Jesus certainly acted out of the strength of their convictions! But we’re better off talking in ways that open us to these types of character, to resilience, determination, and patience – words that appreciate the gifts of a person who may be in a wheelchair, who may be small or soft-spoken.
Many leaders, unfortunately, get misdirected by their thinking that if they’re to be great they need to show force, power, strength. In the day to day with our teams, children, or community, the work is much more often about giving power away and strengthening others, not about demonstrating my impressive strength.
We empower others when we keep clarifying just what is success, when we ask the questions that get people aligned to goals, and when we draw out others’ motivation and talent. So, exult in others’ strength as you
Lead with your best self.