Leadership Choices for the Future

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Don Olcott, Jr., Darcy W. Hardy, and Theresa E. Madden

Excerpt from Dancing on the Glass Ceiling edited by Don Olcott, Jr. and Darcy Hardy

Leadership Choices for the Future

Bad leadership will not, cannot, be stopped or slowed unless followers take responsibility for rewarding the good leaders and penalizing the bad ones. (Kellerman 2004, 232)

The Leadership Choice: Good or Bad

Leadership is inherently viewed as positive and good (Kellerman 2004). The reality, of course, is something quite different. There are good leaders and there are bad leaders, male and female. There are those who believe that any action by leaders is better than no action at all. This is wishful thinking and absolute nonsense. If leaders make bad decisions, those actions paralyze the organization, its members, and damage the public and society in many cases. Kellerman’s quote above is illuminating. If bad leaders are not told by their followers that they are bad, they will continue to be bad leaders. In the absence of genuine visionary leadership, people are willing to listen to anyone who is willing to step up to the microphone. We need to pull the plug on bad leaders.

The blind acceptance of leadership as good and positive is reflected by our predisposition to define effective leadership by personal attributes: visionary, collaborative, charismatic, honest, decision-maker, communicative, models integrity, builds trust, risk-taker, inclusive, team-builder, and role model. We seem to be less inclined to ascribe commensurate attributes to bad leaders: lacks vision, micro-manager, intolerant, poor decision-maker, lacks integrity, alienates followers, assigns blame for organizational mistakes, and many others. Good leaders and bad leaders exist in all facets of human endeavor and neither are genetically predetermined by gender.

The reason that leadership potential has been categorized by gender is that the male-dominated leadership of the latter half of the 20th century arbitrarily assigned various good and bad leadership attributes to men and women. And, in most cases, without any empirical data to substantiate these biases, men were presumed to personify effective leadership attributes. Olcott (2004, 46) wrote:

Males make the rules and when the rules don’t work, men break the rules or create short-term status quo protection strategies that don’t work either. Why? Because the system that has sustained their careers and rewarded them is broken, severely broken as a matter of fact, and the only answers they have are in the past. Boys will be boys and there is not one male on the planet who doesn’t hope that his daughter(s) will be given every opportunity to shine in her career and personal life.

The only thing more fragile than quicksand is the male ego, and when men don’t have the right answers, fear sets in and paralysis is pervasive across the organization. Retrenchment replaces leadership.

None of these have anything to do with visionary and empowering leadership. The primary reason that there is a leadership void in higher education, and society in general, is that our male leaders still believe the art of leadership lies in the past. Women have figured out that visionary leadership lies in the future.

The leadership choice we have for the future is to nurture, develop, and promote “good leadership” among all women and men who have essential leadership potential. Bad leadership is the problem, not what male leaders have done in the past nor what injustices the glass ceiling created for women. The focus for the future must be on good leadership and opportunities for both women and men.

Characteristics of Future Leaders

What are the personal characteristics of future leaders? Johnson, Hanna, and Olcott (2003) have identified the following attributes for effective leaders:

  • Are enthusiastic, positive, and passionate: good cheerleaders. They are positive about followers power to “envision and create their future,” which is not defined by their past and present.
  • Are highly competent, seek continuous improvement, and embrace opportunities that no-one else wants to latch on to.
  • They want to be in the hot seat! People in positions of leadership who don’t want to be there and embrace the opportunities and challenges will lead the organization to that infamous place known as mediocrity.
  • Are visible examples and role models to everyone around them … willing to do anything that they ask others to do. They understand “you never have a second chance to make a first impression.”
  • Leaders have and model integrity … personal and professional.
  • Leaders recognize astutely that their power is only strengthened by reciprocal empowerment of those they lead and influence.
  • Are willing to be seen as colleagues in meetings, letting go of some of the “trappings of power.”
  • Make a habit of reflection and systematically review personal and unit performance; they develop reflection as a personal habit.
  • Pay attention to their organization and watch for changes and retrenchments.
  • Establish social functions and traditions, such as, retreats, informal gatherings, lunches, banquets, and other social symbols that provide social cohesion and common unit experiences and ties and even a sense of fun.
  • Appreciate, value, and have faith in the collaborative process—trusting that the group (faculty, staff, and other groups) will find a solution that works for everyone.
  • Scan the environment (internal, external, and macro) looking for patterns that may impact the organization and academic discipline and distribute those ideas to others; keep reconstituting relevant ideas and concepts, looking for common threads; create and recreate visions and scenarios in her or his mind, and shares ideas with others.
  • Have a tolerance for ambiguity and are prepared to leap the gap rather than tiptoe from stone to stone.
  • Actively seek evaluation information on organizational performance, including third party extensive evaluations.
  • Focus organizational attention on areas where collective agreement exists.
  • Are persistent: Don’t give up.
  • Demonstrate patience—wait for group process to coalesce knowing that group processes take time and often come together and get things done at the last minute.
  • Do not take themselves too seriously.
  • Quantum processes—recognize things that just become evident.
  • Know their personal strengths, weaknesses, tendencies, and perspectives.
  • Value service.
  • Are receptive to views that counter to their own. Aggressively seek out individuals with perspectives and strengths that counter their own.

Further, the editors and contributing authors of this book identified additional characteristics and concepts that will be important for future leaders:

  • Tomorrow’s leaders will need to be able to see the world from multiple perspectives—and respect differences.
  • Leaders must have an international/global view of society.
  • Leaders will need skills in problem-solving, power sharing, creativity, ability to achieve results (results oriented), communication and interpersonal skills, resilience, and ethics and values.
  • Education is essential to remain competitive and on the “cutting edge.”
  • Future leaders need to learn to listen respectfully, consult with others, work as part of a team, and take responsibility for their actions.
  • Leaders will need to be able to optimize today’s only constant: change. They will need to thrive on chaos.
  • Leaders MUST have mentors and role models who can teach them how to manage the political nature of an organization.
  • In the agricultural and industrial revolutions, units of power were land, labor, and capital. Today in the information/knowledge revolution, units of power are information and knowledge.
  • Leaders will need to be politically savvy and willing to make hard decisions.
  • Leaders should not expect to telecommute. They must be able to be in meetings when called.
  • Being in the right place at the right time will still be critical for leaders. Leaders make themselves available for opportunities.

Trends Related to Women, Leadership, and Life

The following observations from the editors and authors are very illuminating and reflect to a large degree, some of the realities for women in today’s society.

  • Women are sometimes hardest on each other: jealous, competitive, and not nurturing.
  • Much of how one sees women in leadership roles comes from how women are treated and viewed in the home. Roles are established early. Gender bias often begins at home. Strong family support is common among all of the female writers in this book.
  • We need to be careful not to tie any particular leadership style to traits or gender. We need to not set up genders to be competitive with each other.
  • Women seem to be able to multi-task well, but because of that, they tend to try to manage everything.
  • Good women leaders build relationships with management and staff. Some men are not comfortable doing this … and sometimes for good reason, given the sexual harassment issues we’ve seen in the workplace.
  • Women must be willing to jump in when there’s a leadership opportunity and must be willing to take risks and make whatever sacrifices are necessary.
  • Women must have equal access to information and education. Women must learn the skills of using technology so that they can participate successfully in the knowledge economy.
  • Nature and nurture contribute to women’s growth. The nurturing is a valuable skill and being a “mother hen” comes easier to most women than it does to most men.
  • Fundamental differences between men and women leaders are in the communication and relationship building styles.
  • Many households still expect the wife and/or mother to do everything.
  • Women have fewer female role models who have experienced the political nature of an organization. Role models may or may not exhibit the appropriate type of leadership that one wants to emulate. We need to recognize the good and the bad … and sometimes the ugly, and seek the good leaders as role models.
  • Women leaders have to recognize that “the good old boys club” still exists in some organizations and they may or may not be able to break into it. Participating in other traditionally male activities may help, but not always. It is more important to understand that it EXISTS.
  • Many women in academe find that they are all dressed up, with nowhere to go.
  • Strong networks are important. Women need to take advantage of the idea that they have a common communication style, thus making it more comfortable to talk to each other about career and leadership issues.
  • Larger numbers of women need to be drawn into M.B.A. and other business degree programs so that they can compete for senior level positions.
  • Some women do not want power and actually move away from it. The term “power” bothers some women. Conversely, some men have power and don’t know how to use it effectively.
  • The fact that women bear children is significant in how it impacts career choices. If they decide to stay home initially and then join the ranks later, they are often too far behind and may no longer be on the cutting edge of their profession.
  • Women are still expected to shoulder the majority of family and household tasks, even though they are also working full time.

The Technology Factor

Managing technology is not about managing toys, it is about managing people and building relationships. It is about communicating effectively. Women have been highly successful in the technology professions. Why? Colwill and Townsend (1999) suggest that female leadership attributes such as self-knowledge, building relationships, facilitation skills (communication), and an innate ability to empower others are essential leadership attributes. How do these translate into practical leadership skills?

Colwill and Townsend (1999) argue that men value power, competency, efficiency, and achievement. Women value communication, relationships, working together towards a common purpose, and understanding the diverse views of others. Male communication is more directed towards providing answers. Conversely, female communication is more oriented towards greater understanding to arrive at a solution. Males disagree, females disapprove. Males tell, females ask. In sum, women may be better suited to build effective partnerships and provide nurturing leadership in the information technology fields.

There is another, more subtle factor that gives women an advantage in leading technology organizations. They simply are better at multi-tasking. Whether this comes from traditional female roles in the home or the ability to face adversity in a more calm and objective manner than males, women can manage more things effectively and at the same time than can most men. Some male leaders are focused to be sure, so focused that their tunnel vision prevents them from managing the diverse range of human and professional relationships in the workforce.

Colwill and Townsend (1999) conclude that a blend of traditional male and female values are essential to the success of organizations in a global context. It is not an either/or proposition and drawing upon the unique male and female leadership attributes will be essential to building thriving organizations in the future.

Follow the Leader—But Proceed with Caution

If followers support bad leaders then this truly is the blind leading the blind Kellerman (2004). The organizational psyche that most of us have chosen to support is that we must be loyal to our leaders, even bad leaders. This is a misguided, dysfunctional assumption. Leaders must be held accountable, particularly by their followers. All across the workforce, day in and day out, followers complain, argue, and are frustrated by an absence of leadership in their organizations. Rhetoric is easier for most of us than action. The fact is, most people will not rock the boat and bad leadership progresses to even more dysfunctional, uninspiring leadership.

Followers have a responsibility beyond the individual leader and must hold bad leaders accountable for the good of the organization. Kellerman (2004) accentuates this point and recommends some self-help strategies for followers.

  • Empower yourself. Engage bad leaders, call them on the carpet, do not tolerate bad leadership and trust yourself and your peers to make the assessment of what constitutes good and bad leadership.
  • Be loyal to the whole and not to any single individual. Put the organization before the CEO, the university president, the hospital administrator, or the director of your organization.
  • Leaders are not gods. Be skeptical and challenge the assumptions as well as the actions of leaders. Leaders who do not embrace this from their followers are more concerned with keeping their job than doing their job.
  • Take a stand. You have that right, but also be politically savvy and pay attention to your leaders. Leadership, more often than not, goes bad because no one is paying attention to what is happening.

How can followers work more effectively with each other and with their leaders? Kellerman (2004) offers some practical strategies.

  • Ensure that the punishment fits the crime. In other words, bad leaders must pay for their transgressions. Don’t let them off the hook with naïve assertions that they have a tough job, or that external forces are the real culprit. Bad leadership is bad leadership.
  • Find your allies. Bad leadership is usually recognized by many individuals across the organization. Find out if your peers perceive your leaders in a similar vain as you.
  • Develop your own sources of information. Are you going to believe everything you are told by people in positions of authority? Remember Watergate, Iran Contra, or even the last time your boss promised you a raise. Cross-check your information.
  • Take collective action. If you leave your fellow colleague out on the end of the diving board, you have absolved yourself of the responsibility to support effective leadership and you are practicing many of the same characteristics that bad leaders practice.
  • Hold leaders accountable.

At first glance, you may perceive these as negative approaches or a glass half empty view of leaders and organizations. To the contrary, your own professional ethics and integrity mandate that you demand good leadership and will not tolerate nor support bad leadership. Again, your loyalty is to the whole, not to an individual leader.

Beyond the Glass Ceiling: What Have We Learned?

The editors and contributing authors identified many of the attributes and skills needed by future leaders. Moreover, these focused on effective leadership attributes for the future, independent of gender, or past injustices, or the glass ceiling, or other discrimination in the workplace. Yet we wish to underscore the need for vigilant advocacy to eliminate and prevent discrimination of any kind.

At the same time, these successful women and men who contributed to this book all faced various career challenges, overcame them, and went on to become effective leaders and, perhaps more importantly, effective mentors and role models for their followers and future leaders. Once again, there are good leaders and there are bad leaders, women and men.

How should we put the glass ceiling continuum in perspective? First, we must acknowledge its existence, less so today, but it certainly still exists in some sectors of the workforce. Gina Barreca (2005, B8), a professor of English Literature and Feminist Theory at the University of Connecticut at Storrs, recently wrote an article entitled Babes in Boyland: A Personal History in which she described her experiences at Dartmouth as a member of one of the first co¬educational classes admitted in the mid-1970s. She wrote:

Aged alumni as well as freshman boys told you, “The college never should have admitted women. When my grandfather went here, there were no women.” You learned to answer, “Hey, when your grandfather went here there were also no indoor lights. Sometimes things get better.”

You were asked, “Are you a lesbian?” because “Only a lesbian would want to go to a men’s college,” to which you learned to reply, “If I were a lesbian, sweetheart, don’t you think I’d have gone to women’s college? Would you like me to do the math for you?” (Or perhaps, when asked if you were a lesbian, you learned to answer with an unblinking little smile,“Are you my alternative?”)

You learned, in other words, to undermine grim, tight-lipped, earnest, and inflexible all-male traditionalism by being a tough cookie, by being a wiseguy, by being a feminist.

Women at Dartmouth and similar institutions had to learn the rules and play by them in order to figure out how to change them. We learned quickly, as part of a very small community, within a larger, older, more entrenched community, how to find our voices and find ourselves—and how to speak up and make trouble. We learned what it feels like to fail and lose—and how its feels to succeed and triumph.

In other words, we learned exactly what girls and women are still learning today: how to challenge institutions of power from within and how to invent a site for yourself even when no blueprint exists for you in¬side a granite-hard establishment.

Barreca’s commentary is ultimately about leadership, not male-bashing or the glass ceiling. She has learned from her past experiences and subtly, but effectively articulated what all good leaders do: they go around, through, under, over, whatever it takes to induce forward-looking change. It is about being politically savvy and at the same time being ethical, honest, and a model of integrity. It’s about learning the system to change the system. It’s about being human, not female or male. In sum, it’s about embracing and nurturing human potential.

Second, we must learn from the glass ceiling evolution that organizations lose invaluable human potential when its leaders practice any type of subtle or blatant discrimination against any employee for any reason—gender, religion, ethnicity, sexual-orientation, handicap status, or age.

Third, we must learn from the past. History does not, in fact, repeat itself. Foolish people repeat history and any leader that promotes gender, or any other discriminatory practice in the workplace is not a leader and this type of behavior must not be tolerated or condoned by followers.

The glass ceiling, in all its diverse and varied manifestations has run its course. We should bury it along with all the other dehumanizing acts of discrimination that prevent women and men from becoming enlightened leaders of thriving organizations. The glass ceiling is being replaced by a spiral staircase that leads to the top of the organization … the welcome sign at the bottom of the staircase says, “women and men with leadership talent and potential please take the first step.”

Towards a Brave New World of Leadership

The complexity of today’s organization suggests we must tap the unique leadership talents and abilities of all organizational members—female and male. We have shared our perspectives in this book on the modern glass ceiling and invited commentary from some distinguished female and male leaders from across the country. We never set out to resolve all the inequities that exist in many organizations.

We respectfully acknowledge that discrimination and injustice in the workplace are not limited to gender. Many workers face subtle but deliberate discrimination based on ethnicity, sexual orientation, handicap status, religious affiliation, and age. These acts of discrimination and racism are as serious as gender discrimination in the workplace. They are all, in one form or another, dehumanizing attacks upon the character and integrity of humanity and all devalue human potential. If we can leave the reader with one invaluable lesson it would be to recognize, nurture, and embrace the human potential of everyone in your life, your community, and your workplace. The world will be a better place for your choice.

Don Olcott, Jr.
Head Strategic Planning & Engagement
Higher Colleges of Technology, UAE

Darcy Hardy
US Department of Labor
University of Texas-San Antonio

Theresa E. Madden
Oregon Health & Science University


Barreca, Gina. 2005. Babes in boyland: A personal history. The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 8, 2005, B7–B9. (This article is adapted from her book Babes in Boyland: A Personal History of Co-Education in the Ivy League, published by University Press of New England in 2005).

Colwill, Jenni, and Jill Townsend. 1999. Women, leadership, and information technology. Journal of Management Development 18(3):207–216.

Johnson, Michael J., Donald E. Hanna, and Don Olcott, Jr., eds. 2003. Bridging the gap: Leadership, technology, and organizational change for deans and department chairs. Madison, WI: Atwood Publishing.

Kellerman, Barbara. 2004. Bad leadership: What it is, how it happens, and why it matters. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Olcott, Jr., Don. 2004. Women, leadership, and distance education: A brave new world or darker shades of the glass ceiling? Distance Learning: A Magazine for Leaders 1(3):45-46.