Be a Leader. Be a Man?

My church is in the midst of a Sunday School series talking about gender difference. The general idea behind gender difference is this: we’re different physically, from our parts, to our hormones, to the ways our bodies age. Does this mean that we can draw conclusive generalizations about non-physical gender differences? And in that conversation, we’ve been talking about leadership styles.

Leadership stereotypes go like this: men are strong, risky leaders who prioritize efficiency. Women are emotional leaders who care about their employees as people and put the good of the company and others in front of themselves. In my own experience, the biggest difference in having male and female bosses has been this: my female bosses have been stricter and more concerned with my professional development (although the two haven’t always gone together). Put another way, I’ve never had a female boss that someone didn’t call a bitch on a regular basis. I think the attitudes of female bosses may have more to do with the need to prove themselves in a traditionally male dominated environment. Or maybe it has something to do with working primarily in the nonprofit sector.

In Asian American studies, we never talked about gender differences in leadership style. The big divide was hierarchical v. democratic leadership. Does the boss get to make all the decisions? Is there a voting process? Does everyone’s voice get heard? Is the leadership top-down or bottom-up? And the general understanding was that you wanted to be bottom-up, listen to everyone’s voice, and reach consensus, even if it took longer.

I’m not going to hash out a complete picture of what I think a good leader should look like. I’m a strong believer in different personalities being appropriate for different contexts. One thing I’m pretty sure about, though, is this: a leader needs to take responsibility for the decisions of the rest of the group. No matter how decisions are made, the leader acts as the front person for the company/club/political party, and if they get the last vote in decision making, they need to own up to that responsibility, right or wrong. Like coaches who get fired when their team doesn’t win. The coaches aren’t the ones actually playing the game. But they own the responsibility for leading the team and making tough calls.

That’s why the BP chief executive Tony Hayward’s testimony in from of Congress today made me so mad. He’s the leader of an international corporation that makes billions of dollars, and instead of accepting the blame for this company, he shoved it off on his employees. “I’m not a scientist”, he said. “I’m not an engineer”. “I’m not involved in the decision making process”, he said. He’s right in the sense that he’s not any of those things. He’s supposed to be the ring master, orchestrating all the parts that the individual scientists and engineers can’t see. A leader needs to take responsibility.

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