THE BLOG

The Critical Need for Women Leaders and the Power of Courageous Leadership

04/29/2015 12:48 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2015

The data is compelling. Organizations with more women in leadership roles do better on a wide range of criteria -- innovation, performance and profit -- as compared to companies with fewer women leaders. But as more and more organizations move to capitalize on the immense value of women leaders, a challenge emerges.

When the first one or a few assume leadership roles, the combination of human social pressures and male-dominated organizations with unwritten or invisible cultural rules leave too many of those women unsupported and set up to be ineffective. (Meanwhile, as the dismal statistics show, women are only 4.6 percent of all CEOs at S&P 500 companies.)

In order for women to have a positive impact as leaders, especially in organizational structures and social contexts that don't readily associate women with leadership roles, everyone in the organization must hone their understanding and ability to have "courageous conversations": the ability to think, speak, and act from values and best thinking in challenging situations.

Unfortunately, despite basic communications training and good corporate values and goals, many of us lack the skills, support, and understanding of the power of social situations to have these challenging yet essential conversations.

"If I were to distill one main lesson
from the research...it is that we are pawns
in a game whose forces we largely
fail to comprehend."

-Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational

Initiating a courageous conversation is not a gender-specific challenge. 50 years of social psychology demonstrates that we are not simply "good people" or "bad apples" who behave predictably. Stressful social - including professional -- situations and the roles that we occupy can dramatically affect our behavior, often outside of our awareness. For example, even the most ethical of us might stay silent or act in ways counter to our values and best thinking when our courageous action is needed most. Sadly, over time this erodes our human and organizational value and potential.

An extreme example: Dr. Phil Zimbardo's landmark Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) in 1971 demonstrated how powerful systemic and social pressure can dramatically affect our judgment and actions. The SPE illustrated that psychologically healthy male college students began to exhibit increasingly sadistic, anti-social behavior within 24 hours of being arbitrarily assigned the role of prisoner or guard, and placed in a mock "prison" in the basement of the Psychology building. The young men who were "guards" began to show increased cruelty towards their college (in reality crime-free) peers, and those given the role of prisoners showed extreme emotional distress. The two-week experiment had to be closed down in six days. Ethical standards were changed following the SPE so that an experiment like it could never be repeated.

Think these dynamics don't affect you or your organization, even if in very subtle ways? Ask yourself: Do you act differently in different roles? When you are the leader? When you are the subordinate? When you are at work, when you are at home?

Every single one of us -- you, me, the new CEO -- is vulnerable to social systems and situations. No exceptions. So while each of us is responsible for our behavior, we're also collectively responsible for creating healthy social systems and learning how to recognize and respond to situational influence.

Using seminal social and cognitive psychology research, along with the latest research on the brain, we can re-engineer systemic and social influences to create systems, processes and skills that support the best in all of us. And we can learn how to make different choices in challenging situations, and support others in doing the same.

We are all born with an innate capacity for courage, and decades of social psychology show that social behavior is contagious. For good or ill. What do you want to inspire in others?
Over the next few posts, we'll explore how to manifest this courage, and illuminate the often-invisible forces that influence our behavior: the systems, situations and our individual dispositions. We'll explore how to make positive change on all three levels:

  • Individual: strategies to cultivate the skills and strengths to think, speak, and act from values and wisdom, especially in difficult circumstances.
  • Team: ways to create positive team patterns that leverage social support for greater well-being, courage and performance.
  • Organization: how to establish courageous cultures and environments that support the unique voice and value that all leaders bring.

The common theme? Courage, that indispensable quality that allows all of us -- of every gender, age, and background -- to rise up and meet even the most difficult and challenging circumstances through strength of values and connection to others. These techniques can unlock, for anyone, the potential that come from having the courage to lead, and the ability to inspire courage in others.