What Does a Leader Look Like?

August 27, 2021


What does a leader look like? 

 Organizational psychologists will point to well-known workshop exercises where executives are asked to draw a picture of an effective leader. In terms of gender, the results are nearly always the same.  Both men and women almost always draw men.

This apparently unconscious assumption is downright depressing.  Still, as more and more women today take their places as leaders in the business and political world, this subliminal bias might be lessening.

The Covid-19 pandemic, too, has raised the profile of leaders who have had the best responses to the global pandemic.   New Zealand, Taiwan, Finland, Norway, Iceland, and Denmark come to mind.  Their chief executives are all female.

That’s the good news.  The bad news is that women in leadership are analyzed and judged for their appearance much more than their male counterparts.  Remember the articles about Hillary Clinton, criticizing her for her “unfeminine” pantsuits and oft-changing hairstyles?  Or about Michelle Obama for her sleeveless dresses?  Or about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for her many colorful “power suits” with matching masks?

Unfortunately, this mindset has been with us for a long time.  When Jeannette Rankin of Montana was elected to the U.S. House as the first female representative in 1916, she was profiled in a Washington Post article titled “Congresswoman Rankin Real Girl:  Likes Nice Gowns and Tidy Hair.”  And lest you think this preoccupation with how powerful women should look ended eons ago, consider this:  until 2017, sleeveless dresses and open-toed shoes were forbidden on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.

What is this all about?  Why are female leaders and would-be-leaders still judged by their appearance while most of their male counterparts are not?  I’ll answer this by quoting scholar and author Naomi Wolf, who wrote in 1990 that insisting on a certain standard of appearance – what she called “the beauty myth” — is ultimately a way to control and constrain women’s behavior and access to power. If certain women are outside of the usual image of how a woman “should look,” she can be denigrated and criticized and mocked. 

In other words, she can be taken down a peg.

Moreover, it takes a lot of time to pursue unrealistic standards of beauty.  Wouldn’t women have more time, energy, and money to attain power — thereby helping to effect societal and political change — if we didn’t spend so much time, energy, and money on our appearance?  (A 2014 study found that women spend 335 hours, or two weeks, on their hair and makeup per year, which equates to 55 minutes a day.  That same study found that 67 percent of adult women worry about their appearance regularly – more often than their  finances, health, relationships or professional success.)

So, back to the original question:  What does an effective leader look like?  She/he looks competent, caring, and honest.  She/he has intelligence, integrity, the ability to delegate, good communication skills, self-awareness, and empathy.

That’s what a leader looks like.

Jan Collins 2021-circle-crop

Jan Collins is a Columbia, South Carolina-based journalist, editor, and author. A former Nieman Fellow at Harvard and former Congressional Fellow in Washington, D. C., she is the coauthor of Next Steps: A Practical Guide to Planning for the Best Half of Your Life (Quill Driver Books, 2009).