Leadership not leaders

28 11 2013

It has become common to assert, not least on these pages, that if there were more women in senior positions that the business world, nay the world itself, would be a better place.
It is true that the testosterone fuelled model that has dominated corporate cultures for decades, the hero style of leadership with its emphasis on the all-powerful individual, is one that most people agree needs to change but what to replace it with? Certainly, in our celebrity focussed culture, it is easy for the media to praise and elevate the individual, male or female, rather than focus on the team. To use an example from football, Manchester United have been a successful team but it is their manager Alex Ferguson and the succession of aggressive captains who have been lionised.

So what might a new leadership look like and is it aligned with feminist principles?

Proponents of a move towards more women leaders may suggest that feminist leadership and good leadership are in fact synonymous, as the principles that underlie feminism; equality, fairness and mutual support are exactly the characteristics that underpin good leadership. However, at the opposite end of the spectrum, is the suggestion that feminist leadership is a contradiction in terms; feminism being the antithesis of power and equality being contrary to the concept of leadership.

A skim through text books and a surf through the internet tends to suggest that there are some common traits of good leaders, irrespective of gender.


Resilience: An ability to deal positively with criticism
Delegation, recruiting a diverse mix of competent people and then empowering individuals
Collaboration, connecting with all stakeholders


Vision, a clear personal vision and the capacity to transform those ideas into action
Openness, visible involvement, with passion and compassion
Authoritative, being recognised as a moral authority


Autonomy, internal control and self-knowledge
Credibility, being trustworthy and authentic
Emotional intelligence, able to handle (own) emotions

On closer inspection, I contend that it is only the values that differentiate leaders from managers. The commonest misconception, therefore, is that leadership is a skill that can be taught. It seems to me that leadership is an emergent property from the innate internal character. The key is authenticity.

Authenticity is a “moms and apple pies” kind of a word. What’s not to like? Be true to yourself, Follow your own path, Lead with your heart. Facebook is full of such aphorisms, the words often printed over photographs of sunsets or kittens for added effect.

What happens, though, if the internal character is flawed? Which brings me back to Alex Ferguson. Central to his style, which he confirms in the recent autobiography, is control; control exerted through violence, the famed hair-dryer treatment meted out to players who failed to do as they were told, or the threat of violence, taking a sword onto the training ground when overseeing youth team sessions. While none of the leaders I have known have ever resorted to violence there have been many whose combative manner has suggested that it would be best not to push them too far. There is no doubt that Alex Ferguson was a leader. A successful leader if the trophy cabinet at Manchester United is used as a measurement tool. But a good leader?

Can leading like Alex Ferguson be taught? I’m minded to say, “I hope not” for the sake of young footballers everywhere, but in all seriousness I do not think that it can be taught. If we are agreed that being authentic is central to leadership then to lead like Ferguson you have to be Ferguson – or be like Ferguson and possess all of the hinterland that created that distinctive leadership style.

And so if we cannot teach individuals how to be a good leader let’s shift the focus to leadership rather than leaders. And here is where feminist leadership comes in; a different, collaborative, inclusive style of leadership.

Change is happening in what makes businesses successful. On the way out is the traditional command and control approach, the Alex Ferguson model so to speak, where one individual really could steer the corporate ship alone. It is being replaced by distributed leadership, where all of the skills needed to steer the ship no longer reside within a single person. Feminist leadership is not expressed in one woman, but in a collective. The traits that underlie feminism – equality, fairness and mutual support are exactly those that are paramount in the model of distributed leadership.

Women can transform the leadership landscape, not by replacing male hero-leaders with high-profile female versions, but by utilising the strength of the collective to usher in a collaborative model. It may be a difficult transformation to track, since there will be few figureheads around which the press can flock, but it will be a change firmly rooted in leadership not leaders.

When did Scotland become America?

14 11 2013

I was in Glasgow city centre earlier than usual last Friday morning and in the middle of Buchanan Street was a larger trailer, the sort that open up to become a pop-up food stall or ticket office. This one hadn’t yet opened but the front bore the slogan “Poppy Scotland Official Merchandise”. That would be poppies then? I tweeted my amusement at this grand statement for what must surely be just a van full of paper poppies but a friend commented, “you’re in for a surprise Karen”, and she was right.

When I passed by that way again later in the day the van was open and revealed all manner of stuff, some poppies right enough, but also tea-towels, tee-shirts, hoodies, pin badges, mugs, pens, umbrellas and so on.

When did it become OK to commercialise conflict and why?

If I was minded to make a donation of £9.99 to Poppy Scotland I’d much rather buy a paper poppy, cost to the charity less than 1p I’m guessing, than purchase a poor quality tee-shirt costing the charity much more than a penny and, therefore, reducing the amount of my money that actually goes to support whatever it is Poppy Scotland does.

And the surrounding streets were full of earnest young people wearing tee-shirts with the Poppy Scotland slogan, “supporting our heroes”.  This on the day that a judge released a recording of a British soldier murdering an injured Afghan citizen. If ever there was a day to get across the message that not all soldiers are heroes then Friday was it.  For clarity, a hero is, according to the dictionary, “a person who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements and noble qualities”. Setting all soldiers up as heroes is an affront to real heroes by devaluing the term.

Becoming a soldier is a job, or as the army website recruitment says, “leaving school this year and looking for adventure, skills and training?” A job for which young men and women are well paid. It may, under certain circumstances, be a dangerous job but a job nonetheless. Doing something dangerous does not automatically make it heroic. And the MOD owe these young “adventure seekers” a duty of care and, like all employers, to make the job the least dangerous it can be.

The government lining up behind slogans claiming soldiers as heroes provides cover for the fact that they have sent young men and women to fight illegal wars. It is a fig leaf for jingoism.

What happened to respect, equality and dignity? Before the mass merchandising if we wanted to support Poppy Scotland, and the clue is in the name, we could buy a poppy.  I may have bought mine for 1p and you may have bought one for £10 but in pinning them to our lapels we were both the same. But now we are encouraged to flaunt support by way of tee shirts and other expensive merchandising.

And freedom of choice?

If we do not display support then the poppy police are straight on to it. It appears that it is compulsory to wear a poppy if you are on the BBC, whether it is a news programme, entertainment or merely as a guest on a chat show.  Many football teams wore specially designed tops including poppy motifs and the back page headlines were of two teams pilloried for not observing a minutes silence ahead of their matches; matches held on 9th November not matches held at the eleventh hour of the eleventh month, the traditional moment to pay silent respect.

So I will never buy or wear a poppy again. If I choose to make a donation it will not be to the poppy chuggers with their slogan filled merchandise, I will do so by putting coins in the collecting can of the veteran soldier standing quietly and with dignity and holding a tray of paper poppies.


karen is managing editor at http://www.the3rdimagazine.co.uk

A mentor – your critical friend?

6 11 2013

“People who grow up in difficult circumstances and yet are successful have one thing in common – at a crucial juncture in their adolescence they had a positive relationship with a caring adult” – Bill Clinton.

There are many myths and misunderstandings about what it is to be a mentor.

The quotation from Bill Clinton captures the essence of what it means – getting the right support at the right time to make a significant difference.

Firstly, it talks about ” a crucial juncture“. Timing is everything. We are not always ready to hear what we need to hear. As a young adult I would have been reluctant to take any advice from anybody. I knew best. Nobody could teach me anything. Sound familiar? Maybe you don’t recognise that in yourself, or in your younger self, but we all know people who just cannot be told. Even if the advice is perfectly sound, perfectly constructed and delivered if the recipient isn’t listening then the advice is valueless. The right advice, or rather the right intervention, is only ever really right if it is received and acted upon.

Timing is everything. A mentor should be a Samaritan; a crutch in a crisis not a walking stick for life. A mentor is someone who can provide the support needed at that moment. The support needed at different times in a career or stage of personal development will vary. If you break your leg then someone offering a crutch would be a good person to know. If you break your arm and someone offered you a crutch it would be of little use but if someone could lend you a sling, that would be of value. So a mentor, unlike labrador puppies, is not for life. A mentor can provide the right support at the right time. And from the perspective of a mentor, they shouldn’t expect or encourage a long-term dependence. It can be hard to walk away but think of it like Mary Poppins, goodbye children, my work here is done.

And “ a positive relationship“? Mentoring isn’t a one-way street. A coach can impart particular skills; instruct in areas where there is a skill shortage or a lack of understanding. It is a transaction from one who has knowledge and expertise to one who has less. Mentoring is a relationship. It requires participation from both parties. My way of looking at this is that a mentor is a critical friend. The relationship isn’t one of teacher and pupil. The mentor should be able to learn as well as teach. And it should be a positive experience. A mentor should be encouraging and supportive. A mentor should be like one of the dragons in Dragons Den, with the person being mentored standing covering in their shadow! A mentor may well have to be critical of ideas or of the direction of travel of the person they support but to be effective the mentoring dynamic should be a positive relationship.

And a critical friend isn’t a best mate. A mentor isn’t the person to stand with you chatting at the bar into the early hours of the morning, listening to your life story and various tales of bad luck and assorted other misfortunes. If you are just looking for someone to talk to, moan to or offload to then you don’t need a mentor you need what in Liverpool we would call a bezzie, a best mate. You should go to your mentor with simple, discreet, time-bound questions. One’s to which there is an answer, or the possibility of finding a solution. Life’s intractable problems and unanswereables are best left for your mum or your god.

The final part of the quotation talks of a “caring adult“. A mentor has to care about the outcome. They should be disinterested not uninterested. Being a mentor is not just throwing fine words to the wind. The mentor should be impartial but should care about what you do with the advice; whether it is acted upon, whether it adds value, if it has been used and what was the outcome. This is a learning process for the mentor too.

And finally I think that the mentor should be an adult, or rather should be a grown up. The relationship has to be an adult one. There shouldn’t be room for ego and childishness and tantrums. Constructive support positively received.

So there we have it. 32 words of quotation explained in a further 700! – the perfect analogy for mentoring.

karen is managing editor at http://www.the3rdimagazine.co.uk
looking at business issues from a more diverse perspective

The impact of sexism on business

6 11 2013

We are, I’m sure, all aware of the discrepancies between the number of women in senior positions compared to that of men.

Rather than considering simply the numbers, it is worth considering the type of businesses that women set up.

If we look at a comparison, by sector, of women-led SMEs versus all SME:

community, social and personal activities ~ +6%
health and social work ~ +9%
hotel and restaurants ~ +4%
production ~ -6%
construction ~ -9%

In summary women more often head up businesses within what is often termed the ‘soft sector’ rather than the ‘heavy’ industrial and manufacturing sectors.

Why might this be?

Well it’s simple, as any venture capitalist will tell you, entrepreneurs should always do business in areas they know. So we shouldn’t be at all surprised that many women start and run companies in ‘traditional’ female categories like food, shopping and things that are family-related, especially if those markets are profitable. The larger concern is that for years many of the biggest companies catering to a female demographic were founded by men.

And it isn’t just in enterprise that women work in traditional female categories. We have many more women doctors now than we ever did, but women are over-represented in areas such as family practices and gynaecology. The same is true of female lawyers, who choose family law and non-profit work.

So while there are more women in traditionally male-dominated roles and professions than there have ever been, small “ghettos” within those professions, where women are allowed to work, are emerging. There is not necessarily anything wrong with this clustering but it is how we view that cluster. I chose the word ‘ghetto’ deliberately to reflect the value that is placed on these clusters. It is clear that as a society we tend to put less value upon areas such as nursing and hairdressing, areas where women cluster.

So it is about what we value and, though it’s subtle, what we value is attached to the masculine or ‘gender neutral’ (and often saying ‘gender neutral’ is the same as saying ‘largely masculine’). As a result we tend to undervalue the business areas that women choose. This is reinforced in the disparaging way we speak of ‘lifestyle businesses’ with particular regard to women-led enterprises operating in areas seen as traditionally female.

So you can see that we can’t really think about the types of business women start in isolation. We need to consider the bigger picture and include the types of jobs women take in the workplace and the value society places on that work.

The lack of value we place on work is important as it often translates into poorer pay and conditions for women in the workplace. I was at a conference a year back that was called in order to address the issue of getting more women into board and senior management positions within the businesses that constitute the co-operative movement. The debate raged about whether quotas needed to be introduced to get more women onto group, regional and national boards. My colleague stood up to make this very simple point: ‘the movement could do more to improve the position of women not by giving more to few women nearing the top of the organisation but by paying a living wage to the thousands of women who work at the lower and middle-levels.’ I agree and would add that they should do more to value the work that the cleaners and shelf-stackers and check-out staff do.

If we are serious about changing the work women choose, we need to go right back to the start and look closely at the role models that we are presenting to the next generation, as these role models will influence the choices young women make when entering the workforce and, therefore, when starting their own businesses too.

If we are serious about changing the landscape of business we need also to look at the value we place upon the type of work women do. And here I think that we might just be on the threshold of change. In the policy document entitled, “Supporting economic growth through local enterprise partnerships and enterprise zones” Eric Pickles, on behalf of the coalition government opens with the statement, “Our economy is currently too dependent on a narrow range of industry sectors.” So, a suggestion at least that there should be less of an emphasis placed on traditional industries. If we read “male-led” instead of “traditional” then maybe signs of change, or an indication of an awareness that change is needed.

Here are just a few opportunities.

With an ageing population we are going to need far more carers, a female-dominated industry. There is a really possibility that society may actually come to value care and carers in this growing market situation. It is up to women to start and lead the large-scale businesses that run and manage the care system rather than leaving it to men to head up these companies. And in healthcare there are many high growth opportunities. The biggest currently seems to be digital healthcare, which describes the development of systems and technologies that have the potential to save lives by equipping doctors with quicker and more accurate information about patients. There is no reason why this should not be headed by the people who actually come into contact with the patients, predominantly women carers.

With retail giants failing or otherwise leaving the high street there is a huge opportunity for small specialist retailers. My contention is that the high street is changing, not dying, and there is a real desire to halt the growth of commuter towns and build character back into the places in which we live and shop. This drive is personified by Mary Portas who is working, and has been given public money, to energise 12 towns. It’s not much, but it’s a sign of things to come.

While computer games have long been seen as a male-only enclave, this is changing. Games used to be sold on the quality of the graphics. This is no longer the case. The graphics are uniformly pretty good and so this aspect of the game is a given. What sells the games now is the game play, storytelling, and more than that the psychology of the characters. This opens up this whole arena to women. And I think no one would argue with the assertion that social media plays to women’s strengths in communication and collaboration.

Women have provided the backbone to volunteering in this country for many, many years. Activities like befriending, meals on wheels, staffing charity shops and supporting local PTAs. In the current economic climate, with more and more closures of public services, it is often women who take responsibility for keeping open services such as post offices and libraries. We are starting to see the emergence of social enterprise as a way of providing community services and we are seeing a new band of social entrepreneurs and these are more likely to be women.

The challenge, as before is that for years many of the biggest companies catering to a female demographic have been founded by men. The opportunity is that the changing landscape, moving businesses towards care and social enterprise, will favour the female demographic. The challenge is to make sure that women are in a place where they are able to capitalise on these opportunities.

We should, then, be keen to ensure that women think big enough with their start-ups as, while men are competing to build the next Amazon, Facebook, or eBay, women-led start-ups still tend to focus on small niches. As we’ve seen the niches may be growing of their own accord, but we do need more women who are willing to build large businesses.

It may be that the rise of the social entrepreneur will aid this process as the emphasis for social enterprise is on creating surplus rather than profit and of creating value for all the stakeholders and not simply for the shareholders. Women may in the past have been discouraged at the prospect of creating billion-dollar businesses by the spectre of working in, and with, the old-style testosterone-fuelled board. By replacing that competitive environment with one more conducive to collaboration, as is often the case with social enterprise, we should see more women creating large, sustainable and profitable enterprises.

karen is managing editor at http://www.the3rdimagazine.co.uk
looking at business issues from a more diverse perspective