There exists a deeply ingrained social misconception that leadership is embodied in a great person with desirable qualities who can influence others toward goals that reflect organizational excellence.
I believe that leadership is not attributable to a single individual, it is instead a process in which a group of people, leader(s) and followers, engage. Leadership manifests differently in different situations, taking forms that commonly reflect a mutually defined drive for change. I think leadership is a process of realizing potentialities, on the parts of both leaders and followers. Everyone is active in the process – one where the leader recognizes that there exists a potential for change, for development toward a more optimal state than the now, and has both the ability to recognize this potential in others and the skill set and intuition to bring it to fruition. Leaders and followers work together to mutually define that optimum and the trajectory thereto – leadership is neither the imposition of the will of a few on many, nor is it merely the expression of the will of many by an equipped few. It is an active process in which both leaders and followers participate by enacting the drive for institutional, organizational, personal, or ideational change. Management of a constituency is not leadership, and leadership is not management. I do not think success and leadership necessarily entail one another, one can and often does occur without the other.
This is not to say that I advocate for completely flat structures of governance. The discussion of why hierarchical structure is necessary is another discussion entirely from my definition above (and does not necessarily condone existing systems of oversight, but instead recognizes the human capacity to self-organize). I here intend to make the distinction between leadership (a process) and a leader, a distinction which is often overlooked. A leader does not carry out leadership on his or her own, but the process of leadership (as described above) requires that there do exist leaders and followers with separate sets of responsibilities and influence, but with mutual goals in situations of change.
Thus the “desirable qualities” of the misdefined leader (assertive, charismatic, etc.) are neither indicative of true leadership nor necessarily desirable in many environments.
I believe the persistence of a definition that equates leadership with the individual and advocates for particular personality traits is partially responsible for a number of issues facing women who seek leadership positions. When the emphasis lies on the person and not the process, dogmatic conceptions of required characteristics become exclusive of those who do not fit the traditional leader paradigm, which is also stereotypically male. I believe that in changing our definition of leadership, we can change the constituency.
In Spring 2014 I developed and taught a course on women’s leadership in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, with support from the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership. You can visit the Rice course listing, and for details, syllabus, and weekly updates throughout the semester, see our course page. The course evolved into an independent interview and videography project involving women and other leaders in research, academia, industry, and policy. For videos and transcriptions of my interviews, visit the interview page.
Why women? Because I am a woman in STEM, and although the position of women in many areas has improved with the coming of the 21st century, gender issues and dynamics still exist, and will always exist. I think ignoring these issues can result in ill-preparedness when challenges inevitably arise. Thus I seek to think critically, and encourage others to do the same, about current perspectives and scholarship as a means to arrive at a well-informed position on the status of women in STEM.