De-Genderfying Leadership

05/29/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Men "just don't understand," and women and men will "never be able to communicate in a productive manner." I'm not the only one who doesn't buy this line of thinking. That's why I was a bit frustrated to read Maria Shriver's announcement of what sounds like a very interesting, possibly culture-changing project, with the unnecessarily polarizing label: "A Woman's Nation."

The message and positioning of this project seems to reflect a generation gap. In my own women's market research, I've often noticed a subtle disconnect between women 55 years of age or more and their younger "sisters" in the understanding of gender roles, feminism and leadership. Younger women grew up in a time when they didn't have to do a lot of fighting for rights, and while they should definitely be aware of the hard work of those who came before them, the reality is that the continuing "battle" is not something they find currently relevant.

In addition to the generation gap, there is, of course, a gender gap. The problem, with which those in the field of "leadership" have long struggled, is that men could perhaps always use a bit more education on why they should engage in and integrate some of the feminine sensibilities of decision-making and organizational management. But, how do we get that interest from men? For years and years there seems to have been a negative assumption that men will forever dominate women's lives. And yet, when pressed, most women today will admit to having a few male friends of their own who they consider uniquely evolved and open/interested in broader gender discussions. So, should we all join together with these forward-thinking men to tackle the issue, or form another women-specific organization? Let's take responsibility for our approach.

These sorts of disconnects can be ignored, or, they can be laid out on the table and explored together (older and younger, female and male). In my mind, the gender and generational differences must be bridged in order for the amazing work that has been done by those same wise women before us to truly take hold and serve humanity -- men and women together -- for centuries to come.

Ironically, the presentation of "A Woman's Nation," even though men are mentioned as being included, reflects that which can so often be characterized as "typical" male communication style: the essence of "us vs them." If it is a woman's nation, where do the men go? And, frankly, vice versa: If someone were to create a powerful men's leadership movement and call it "A Man's Nation," wouldn't there be a lot of backlash as well? The powerful leadership styles represented by so many talented women should be a universal pursuit, so let's make it accessible to all.

To me the idea behind "A Woman's Nation" seems to be a productive one. Those involved in the effort surely intend to use their collective wisdom to develop much more of the good that comes from leading via feminine sensibilities. That being the case, the Woman's Nation team may want to present their project as one seeking common ground. After all, the goal really must be to work in "webs of inclusion," as Sally Helgesen -- wise woman herself and author of The Female Advantage -- would put it. Since it sounds like "A Woman's Nation" is in its beta stage, there should still be plenty of time to fine-tune the core message and communication style in order to do just that: reach all who would benefit from a leadership web of inclusion.

If "women's ways" of communication are known to be open-minded and connection-seeking (as per Deborah Tannen's insightful, now classic, You Just Don't Understand), why shouldn't we use those open communication ways to band together, and be a bit more intentional about inviting men into the conversation? Rather than spend energy touting or striving toward a woman's nation, specifically, let's focus on bringing genders together in this new Leadership Nation (or some other more catchy label). As authors Kira Gould and Lance Hosey wrote in their powerful book, Women In Green, it is "less about the 'ascendancy of women' than it is about the growing value of those sensibilities commonly associated with women." To me, there is no gender about the good in that.