What Does It Mean to Be a Leader?

02/10/2013 11:49 BST | Updated 23/01/2014 23:58 GMT

What does it mean to be a leader?

Is it authority and power alone? Is it the ability to front a large multinational or hold the fates of employees in our hands? Or does our vision of meaningful leadership extend beyond simply being at the top?

Such questions seem to haunt this recent article from researchers in Canada looking at the differences between men and women leaders in business. Seeking to understand how women experience the subjective rewards (read: meaning) of leadership, the research uncovered a 'psychosocial rewards gap' between men and women. Men, the study found, tend to draw deep meaning from the authority that comes with being a leader. Women, on the other hand, tend not to.

What can we suppose this tells us about what it means to be a leader? Perhaps less than we thought since, for women, the meaning of leadership apparently resides quite outside these metrics.

This psychosocial difference has important implications for campaigns seeking to encourage more women into leadership roles. Sheryl Sandberg's clarion call for women to 'lean in' (be more assertive and persistent in achieving their professional goals) might perhaps seem a little misguided - for why encourage women to be leaders at all if they won't gain much meaning from it?

I can't help feeling that the gender differences implied by this research depend on a too limited set of metrics for measuring the meaning of leadership - not just for women, but for men too. For it's not just women who are let down by these results. Many men may indeed measure authority as a meaningful leadership perk, but that perhaps tells us more about society's narrow cultural expectations of men, rather than the deeper, broader and more complete spectrum of motivations that would be in play if women's leadership motivations were included alongside. In this formulation, the metrics of meaning are doing both men and women a profound disservice - perpetuating a narrow, one-dimensional stereotype of male leaders, while discouraging women leaders altogether.

A more encompassing view of what it means to be a leader can be found in the way women measure leadership today. If they don't find meaning in authority, where do they find it? Arianna Huffington's 'Third Metric' movement has proved an interesting venue for discussing what alternative definitions of leadership might be. In conversations lead primarily by women, the Third Metric is defining the meaning of business success beyond the 9-5. Breaking down the barriers between home and work, re-evaluating our approach to stress, and taking cues from the world of social entrepreneurship, the Third Metric is nurturing leaders with a values-driven approach to the business world.

This redefinition of what it means to be a leader applies as much for men as for women. Like women, some male leaders also find meaning beyond the 9-5, in altruism and family, community and being cared for, and in a more relational management approach. By undermining this broader view by equating success simply with money and authority, we risk perpetuating men's disconnection from these social structures and familial motivations. Such disconnection can have profoundly debilitating effects on well-being, leading to higher rates of depression and suicide.

Taking women's alternative vision for leadership as a starting point, let's re imagine what it could mean to be a leader by doing away with the idea that men only want money and authority for their own sake and start creating the space for a broader, more balanced, more human vision of what being a leader means - for both men and women. Initiatives like the Third Metric and The Good Men Project are great places to start challenging our preconceived notions of what leadership means in business, but we will need to integrate those conversations into the very heart of business if we are to create better leaders on both sides of the gender line.

The success of social entrepreneurship and socially responsible business has been a great demonstration of what challenging the conventional wisdom of business leadership can do. Defining success beyond merely the financial, and integrating the values and well-being of employees into core business practices have become the hallmarks of the sector, and integral to long term business success.

Such lessons are integral not just for business leadership, but on the global political stage too. What does it mean to be a political leader? Our entire global economy is defined by a preconceived notion that meaning is measured in competitive terms. Not just international corporations but entire nations are weighed and judged according to their "international competitiveness", a narrow definition which constrains our leaders to competing instead of cooperating, and the effects filter down into our businesses, the environment, and our relationships. Yet as anyone can see by the fact that so many global problems remain unresolved, this one-sided vision of meaning in which competition always trumps cooperation is not doing us any favours. Global problems obviously require cooperation if they're to be solved - but in the present climate of competition, they persist and are left to worsen.

By challenging and changing what we think about leadership and competition, we can do more than just break down the differences between men and women leaders. By changing the conversation for both, we can nurture leaders who want more for themselves, their businesses, and the world around them. Such visionaries will be rewarded by more than authority, but by a broader, deeper, and more complete vision of what the world can and should be, and of the kind of leadership that can change it. And what better meaning is there to being a leader than that?