This is too rich on so many levels.
You won’t be surprised in the least to know how delighted I was to read the headlines of a recent Forbes Magazine article on leadership. You know, Forbes is trying to emulate The Harvard Business Review and be scholarly on matters of business. In this instance, they really nailed it. Here is the headline:
Androgyny: An Emerging Trend in Leadership
Swoon. Yup. You read it right. Kindly read it again.
Let me quote the first line of the article: “The ancient Greek philosopher Plato, in one of his works, referenced the myth of the androgynous: ancestors and “people of the third gender” who simultaneously possessed tremendous strength and both masculine and feminine features. They accomplished deeds that even encroached on the power of the gods. Fearful of the androgynous’ strengths, the gods sought to reduce their power, literally dividing each of them into two halves along with their influence. After this so-called “division,” people embraced one of two features: masculinity or femininity.” Be still my non-binary heart!
My absolute favourite therapist has dubbed me “third gender” and I don’t think I’ve ever been so flattered in my life. I love her. FYI, she’s cool with that. I once half-mistakenly called her ‘mommy’, but that resulted in a 30 minute discussion of what would make me call my therapist ‘mommy’. I won’t be doing that again!
What’s not to love about Forbes endorsing the heroism of the non-binary? Androgyny was a symbol of integrity for philosophers, poets, and rulers throughout history. Cue Little Lord Fauntleroy, a maligned androgynous superhero, written about just yesterday. And I wonder why? Is androgyny both simultaneously beautiful and sexless? Does this combination speak of innocence? And why is Forbes magazine, this thrusting publication of capitalist hegemony writing about femme-boys and butch-girls?
Because androgyny is the hottest thing in the C-Suite.
Today, the demand is for leaders who possess characteristics of both sexes. It isn’t fashionable to be too much of either, so recruitment specs are increasingly looking for traits that are both:
- Action-oriented, yet empathetic;
- Patient, yet decisive;
- Rational, yet accepting;
- Nurturing, yet assertive;
- Detail-oriented, helpful, compassionate, warm, but also ambitious and confident.
These traits exist in all of us, just to differing degrees. The ideal, is for the executive to have a balance in the two. It implies flexibility, adaptability, versatility, and it also looks like androgyny. Of course that might mean personality as well as looks—and no matter how hard we might try, we are all suckers for the signifiers of what someone looks like.
The Forbes article concludes that androgyny is the essence of collaboration and drive, giving and receiving, exactly what it takes to succeed in today’s business world.
So far so good. But are we as a society preparing leaders for this kind of world? No, not at all. In fact, our obsession with the binary is exactly the opposite. You can’t even breathe before finding a reference to how men have lost their mojo, are afraid to be men, don’t know what masculine is anymore. But it isn’t just men. Women compete in a “man’s world” and have to toughen up and display macho characteristics. The tragedy in all of this is that today’s world asks us silently to meet in the middle, but the blaring horns of propaganda and confusion drive us to the extremes. And this really is a case of the noisy minority wrecking the party for the rest.
Yes, to the soft and sensitive man who listens and cares, bravo, well done, but if you are a wimp or a sissy, then you’ve over-compensated. Yes! to the strong woman who is confident and outspoken, but shame on you if you left your heart at the front door. What’s a third sex person to do?
Spell it out. People: Gender norms are a continuum. Having range and flexibility to express yourself makes you a better person, but also makes you a more understanding person, a person better able to get on in whatever situation you find yourself in.
The Forbes article is rather extraordinary in that it offers a prescription, a 7-Step model for helping us all to find our place in the middle of the spectrum. You can find the article here.
Our fascination with the androgynous has been going on for a long time. In the 1970’s and 1980’s we saw androgyny take over the pop music world…Boy George, Annie Lennox, David Bowie, Prince, Elton John, Michael Jackson, and later, Madonna, Cyndi Lauper. Even pop art icon Andy Warhol was into drag in the late 70’s and early 80’s. This state of ferment was important at the time, because it was different, different from the rigid stereotypes that had preceded it. The Suburban Dream as brilliantly illustrated in 1950’s America celebrated a rugged, clean-cut, career man, an A-line long-skirt wearing perfect wife, perhaps with an apron. Both were perfectly coiffed, so much that not a thing in their lives was out of place. The binary preserved in aspic. Androgyny in pop was a rejection of that model.
Even today, the subversive thread of gender non-conformity continues with pop stars like Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga. Lady Gaga has understood the broader political and social dimensions of gender, and expresses herself beautifully.
No less august a publication than Scientific American has noted this trend in pop music and the fan-love for androgynous performers. What the magazine highlights in the article Blurred Lines, Androgyny and Creativity is that some performers appear to think that physical androgyny is what earns them their pop icon spurs, but in reality it is psychological androgyny that is the link to creativity.
In the 1970’s, leading psychologist Sandra Bem argued that psychological androgyny, defined as the extent to which a person blends traditional male and female behaviours has important consequences, most notably, the development of creativity. She notes that society does not encourage the expression of these characteristics within the same individual, but that the individual who does display both, has had to swim against the tide to get there. It is intriguing that her work was cited by both the Forbes article and Scientific American.
Later research has demonstrated that psychological androgyny is associated with positive outcomes such as higher self-esteem, life satisfaction, marital satisfaction, general happiness, but also career success, perceived competence (Kelly and Worrell 1976). Why? Because the parenting style of the psychologically androgynous stressed independent thinking, curiosity, and competence. It is any wonder that such people make such good leaders?
[I will have to explore another time what happens to the transgender community…why we have one of the highest rates of self-harm and suicide of minority groups…and what makes being trans or non-binary so different than being psychologically androgynous.]
My Reiki Master pointed out that the seat of our creativity lies with the sexual chakra. A scholarly study from the 1960’s found that creative men and women had interests more typically associated with the opposite sex (McKinnon 1962). Why? Because creativity requires both sensitivity and independence.
Why does all this matter and how does this all tie together? The single most important leadership quality for a CEO is creativity. “High-performing CEO’s practice and encourage experimentation and innovation throughout their organisations.” In an oft-cited IBM Consulting study, 60% of CEO’s identified creativity as the single-most important determinant of success in the role.
So what have we got? Androgyny = creativity = arousal = leadership…but when one thinks of androgynous leadership one doesn’t think of a concupiscent thirst for power. And maybe that’s just it. Maybe the psychologically androgynous are perfect for it because they don’t assume it, don’t take it, but instead get carried there on the shoulders of their colleagues.
And you know what? The next time I go for a C-Suite interview I’m going to bring this article and I’m going to wear a dress. [I’m not kidding. Recruiters are already on the hunt].