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Women Have Always Led From 'Why' But Not Always Rewarded for It

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Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

Patty Murray was a young mother who became riled up when her state legislator voted to cut preschool funding. She went to talk to him, and he dismissed her by saying she was "just a mom in tennis shoes" who couldn't make a difference. Ticked off by the insult as well as the injustice, Patty put on her running shoes, literally and figuratively.

First she secured 13,000 signatures in support of the preschool to save its funding. Then she adopted the senator's demeaning epithet, "just a mom in tennis shoes," as her campaign slogan and ran for the school board, then the state senate and won. Today, that "mom in tennis shoes" is serving her fourth term as a U.S. Senator from Washington state and is a Democratic party leader respected by both sides of the aisle for getting things done. People might not think of her as a big personality or charismatic orator like Martin Luther King Jr., but she has been a great and effective leader for women and children across the board.

This story is as good an example of archetypical women's leadership as any I know. It came to my mind when I watched Simon Sinek's video.

I was caught up in Sinek's compelling delivery. And yet, I had a sense of cognitive dissonance, a feeling something was just a little bit off, with pieces missing from the argument.

Don't get me wrong. It makes perfect sense that people follow leaders (or as Sinek puts it, "those who lead") who start from the why -- the authentic core of their convictions rather than the what of the products they are selling.

I know from my experience as a CEO that the primary task of a leader -- as leadership experts such as Warren Bennis, Robert Whipple, and Rosabeth Moss Kanter have said many times in dozens of ways -- is first and foremost the creation and articulation of meaning. You can't do that unless you start from your core convictions.

Gender Lens Missing

If he had looked beyond the culture he is immersed in, he would quickly have seen that women have always led from the "why." -- Gloria Feldt

But here's the fly in Sinek's ointment, revealed by the fact that not one of his examples of "those who lead" was a woman.

His archetype of a leader, not surprisingly given history, is male. So he missed important aspects of leadership that become evident when viewed through a gender lens.

If he had looked beyond the culture he is immersed in, he would quickly seen that women have always led from the "why." Absence of that fundamental is more likely to be a male problem than a female leadership skill gap.

And then women get the job done. A true leader is able to translate her convictions into action. But men and women tend to do that differently, too.

Men with leadership proclivities typically start businesses to create wealth, or enter politics for the sake of attaining power and privilege. Women leaders tend to start social movements and nonprofits: Susan B. Anthony and women's rights, Jane Addams and the Settlement House, to call up some women from history. Malala Yousafzai and women's education rights in Pakistan, Eve Ensler and V-Day to end violence against women, Emily May and Hollaback to stop street harassment just to name a few from more current movements.

Or, as Patty Murray did, women enter politics to solve a problem or rectify an injustice, rather than to seek the power of the office for its own sake.

Unfortunately, though women are now better educated than men and there is a clear business case that having more women at the top of companies results in a better ROI, and even though women rate higher than men on most leadership attributes, women often put their heads down and do the work rather than take the credit they deserve. Thus they are not as loud and as a result not as likely to be rewarded for their work. So the female half of the population has yet to translate their passionate beliefs into the level of wealth, power, and influence that the leaders cited by Sinek have had.

That's why women have remained stalled at under 20 percent of top leadership positions across all major sectors, and under 5 percent among Fortune 500 CEOs.

Does this make women less "why" based or lesser "people who lead?" Just the opposite.

Sinek claimed to have discovered that knowing your beliefs and starting from the "why" is the way to become a successful leader.

Since women have known and done this all along, their winning strategy is not to try to be more like men, but to be authentically themselves. They just need to do a better job of telling the world what they are doing and, well, why.

At the same time, thought leaders like Sinek should occasionally put on their gender lens so they can see the whole leadership story.

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