Heroizing CEOs Exacerbates Gender Divide

When we stop perpetuating leadership values based on a male-dominated culture, we create space for new models of leadership that are better for women—and better for the bottom line.

We all strive to be leaders in one way or another: whether it is in leading our workplaces, communities or in personal capacities, the general consensus is that it is good to be a leader. The lines get more blurred as we investigate how we define “good” leadership vs. “bad” leadership. For a long time, “good” leadership has been defined by characteristics traditionally attributed to males, whether they are physical, such as speaking in a lower pitched voice or preferred leadership styles, such as taking a hierarchical approach.

We heroize leaders who embody these characteristics. They stand above and apart from those they lead—sometimes to disastrous effect. For example, WeWork’s Adam Neumann and his “charismatic leadership” is largely credited as a factor in the company’s failed IPO. Neumann’s aggressive and often toxic behavior was continuously excused — and the cracks in WeWork’s business model were swept under the rug — thanks to the heroized myth of the former CEO and conviction in his singular vision.

This narrow view of “good” leadership negatively impacts women in the workplace. When women attempt to adopt “male” leadership qualities, they can often be perceived as unlikeable, arrogant and self-promoting. It’s also bad for business. When we stop perpetuating leadership values based on a male-dominated culture and heroizing leaders, we create space for new models of leadership that are better for women—and better for the bottom line.

Based on the insights of 24 leading women in innovation, we’ve identified the following approaches to expand the definition of “good” leadership.

• Bridge the gap between CEO and all employees by highlighting their similarities instead of their differences. In addition to removing the “us vs. them” mentality, moving away from singular spotlights to highlighting teams and collaboration promotes the very conditions that enable innovation and company longevity.

• Model vulnerability and authenticity. 72% of employees want to see a new definition of leader. This means the environment is ideal for leaders to show up as themselves, and be transparent about their values, strengths and weaknesses.

• Reconsider how you evaluate for leadership qualities. Whether it is the structure of performance reviews or promotions, ensure that what you’re deeming as important drives employees to take on a more human-centric, authentic leadership style in their day-to-day. Place higher emphasis and weight on values that promote collaboration, tolerance and inclusivity.

• Create diverse representation at every level, from analysts to senior management. In order to create an environment that highlights different leadership values and styles, it is important to show variety in both the leadership styles companies choose to value within their companies, and the representation and diversity employees see at each level. Traditionally, there are more women and people of color in entry-level roles but seeing them at the leadership level becomes an exception to the rule, which sets a negative precedent for all employees.

• Battle perpetuating imposter syndrome that comes with labels, such as ‘the only’ or ‘the first.’ Once women enter positions of power, 54% say that they experience imposter syndrome at high or frequent levels, versus 24% of men. With unrealistic expectations around what leadership means (and looks like) as well as labels that perpetuate these expectations, it is no surprise that fewer women even attempt to get on the leadership ladder in the first place.

The heroization of male leaders has been an issue for decades, if not longer. But recent events, including the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, have brought about conditions that humanized many of our leaders. We have seen leaders openly discuss their own biases and naivete in regard to issues of inequity and injustice. We have also seen more intimate details of their home lives via Zoom calls, including families, pets and children. While the future remains uncertain, one lesson of the past year is that we should embrace CEOs and leaders that offer vulnerability and authenticity as a means to develop more inclusive and impactful leadership models.