Women and Visionary Leadership
Visionary leadership – it is just about being effective
The key to visionary leadership lies in self-confidence, a good grasp on the big picture, and communicating your vision effectively to others.
In Women and the Vision Thing, by Herminia Ibarra and Otilia Obodaru, Harvard women score better than men on all leadership components except “envisioning.” That is defined as:
“the ability to recognize new opportunities and trends in the environment and to develop a new strategic direction for an enterprise.”
We also know that women are judged more harshly in performance evaluations for being too hard or too soft. But what does this notion of visionary leadership really mean?
The conclusion drawn by Herminia Ibarra on reduced levels of “envisioning” was based on 360 ratings by peers of the female research subjects. Other psychologists are less confident about the exclusive use of peer ratings which “tend to be lower than those of other rater groups, including managers and direct reports.” The Emotional Competence Inventory is a recognized 360 assessment, which adjusts the weight of peer group scores and can be used in making assessments of visionary leadership.
Sweeping Statement Traps
I am reluctant to use globalization terms starting “Women are ….. ” It’s too broad brush and assumes that all women are the same. We are not. Some women are logical and linear. Some are not. On an anecdotal basis I have observed many successful women who are visionary in their thinking. I have also observed a high number of women who are not. These have tended to be more junior. This implies visionary leadership can be an acquired skill and learned.
One of the areas that both saves and holds women back is perhaps a more conservative attitude to risk. This is coupled with a slowness to see the bigger picture and tie it in with business numbers, especially at a lower level. I have seen women spend hours of collective time trying to save a few hundred dollars, not realizing that they spend more than they saved, in opportunity cost, through the economizing process. Yet this slower and more thoughtful approach can help to minimize risk, as assessments tend to be more thorough and consultative.
According to Ellen F. Weber, PhD, Director of MITA International Brain Based, the structural differences in the male and female brains means they have different approaches. Women’s thinking is a more integrated process while men take a linear, and what appears to be a more logical approach.
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Two key omissions around visionary leadership
When people discuss visionary leadership, they rule out two key elements.
Omission #1 Vision is Incremental
When Mark Zuckerberg thought up The Facebook in his dorm room to evaluate “hot or not”, did he really envision the scope of Facebook as it is today? What did Sara Blakely envision when she looked for pantyhose that fitted properly, which eventually became a sought after under garment called Spanx? Very often they are not about a single eureka moment. Instead they require a lot of hard work and collaborative evolutionary effort and energy over a long period of time.
Omission #2 Vision needs to be effective
For vision to be effective, it has to be actionable. Visionary leadership and effective leadership are almost interchangeable and co-dependent. You can’t have one without the other. Many people have had visions for business success but have failed. One of the hallmarks of a successful business leader (male) is coping with failure. Yet we are less willing to be so lenient with failed women leaders. Is this why we bring women up to the edge of the glass cliff?
Mark Lipton, in Walking the Talk (Really) Why Visions Fail, suggests that vision is about finding the balance between believing and doing and engaging others in that objective. He observes that visionary leaders:
“articulate it (sic the vision) to themselves and to others. They were willing to face the reality that, if the vision process at their organization stalled, it was perhaps because they succumbed to a form of inertia. And, most importantly, they were willing to be true to their own values and refrain from placing blame for inaction on some institutional imperative. They explored the vision not dispassionately from the outside, but with a full-range view of how they thought and felt about that distant future and what would be required of them to implement it.”
So visionary leadership is about belief in self and others, as well as communicating that energy to lead effectively. There is no reason why women can’t do this successfully.
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