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Leadership Just Got New Pronouns

BETC associate creative director Lauren Haberfield considers how the concept of ‘leadership material’ must be reframed if we’re going to level up our feminism - and our businesses

Leadership Just Got New Pronouns

As this year finally comes to a close, our industry finds itself lost and desperately using all means necessary to predict the future of advertising. As half of us cling to the idea that things will return to normal next year, the rest are scrambling to form a plan, any plan, as to how to keep agencies afloat and teams inspired. And while we Marie Kondo what to keep and what to toss away it’s important to recognise that something remarkable happened this year. Leadership got new pronouns, and for the first time they aren’t he/him. 

The Covid-19 epidemic has acted as a pressure test for global leaders and there is one thing all countries with better outcomes have in common - they are led by women.  

Now, this could be turned into one giant ‘I told you so’, giving women everywhere the glory that they have worked endlessly for, but what is more useful about this revelation is not in fact the gender of the leaders, but the leadership traits associated with that gender. 

Traditionally we have long seen leaders as those who are dominant, strong, powerful, assertive, uncaring and unemotional. These are considered ‘masculine’ traits and we as a society and as an industry have embraced them wholeheartedly. It is this acceptance that has allowed advertising to remain a boys club, that has historically turned women against each other and that has fuelled the disrespectful and at times criminal behaviour brought to light by the #metoo movement. 

If you think about the people running our agencies today, even the female led ones, you will find these traits. Because that is how a leader is depicted. And while men and women alike are both restricted by this construct, it is women who suffer more because these specific qualities are punishable for the female sex. 

We’ve all been through feminism 101, so we know that women are called bossy when men are called assertive. We know that if a woman is dominant she is considered a ‘bitch’, that if she gets angry she is ‘emotional’. 

Now we need to graduate up a level to see that our current situation around women and leadership is a lose-lose. Either women must appropriate behaviours that have negative consequences to them and their careers or they are not considered ‘leadership material’ in the first place. 

We have allowed this illusion that masculine traits and leadership go hand in hand for so long that even as we get closer to equality we are trapped in the same cycle and unable to accept the ideas that more diverse leaders bring. 

If we open the door to more women leading our industry but force them to act as those who have come before, then what is the point? 

As important as it is, this isn’t about reaching a diversity quota. It’s about changing the entire way we see leadership. It’s about accepting that what were once considered ‘feminine’ traits are what makes a great leader. 

Traits that are “more collective than individual, more collaborative than competitive and more coaching than commanding” - according to recent findings from the UN’s policy brief that measured the effectiveness of response during Covid-19. 

Traits like empathy, collaboration and openness have made the difference in what could be considered the biggest collective crisis the modern world has seen. 

In a nutshell, traits that traditionally and perhaps condescendingly are paired with women. 

If these traits are good enough to run the world, they should be good enough to run our agencies. They should be our inspiration for rebuilding agency culture, how we chose the leaders of tomorrow and how progress is celebrated going forward. 

Now is the time to stand up and admit that these types of traits create great leaders and by doing so allow women and men to benefit from them. To allow everyone to become a leader based on their empathy, not on their ability to assert dominance. 

Leadership has a new identity. We have the proof, in agencies, in business and now on a global stage. By redefining that it is to be a leader we aren’t shattering a glass ceiling, we are simply removing it. 


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