After competence, are certitude, charisma and chutzpah the 3-Cs of research leadership?
When Rob Moodie was the CEO of the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation (VicHealth) he started a “conversations in leadership” series for the recipients of VicHealth Public Health Research Fellowships. The idea was to begin an explicit process to develop research leadership in public health, drawing us together to think about the qualities that were necessary.
There were ten of us at the first gathering; two men and eight women. Beyond the fact that it was a meeting for “future leaders”, none of us knew what it was all about. Rob went around the table, asking each of us in turn to introduce ourselves; he also asked how we felt about being identified as a future leader in public health research.
The gender divide was immediately and starkly revealed. When Rob asked Paul (the other man in the room) and me how we felt, we gave suitably immodest responses. I can’t remember our precise answers, but they would have reflected in some way on the appropriate recognition of our talent. Then the first woman spoke. She told, hesitantly, of a gnawing fear that she would be “found out”. Someone, probably sometime very soon, would realise that she was a fraud. She had no right to the VicHealth Fellowship, and she had even less claim on being a leader. Paul and I glanced at each other. Who were we to say that she was wrong? And then there was a visible sigh from the other women in the room. Each one, in turn, expressed an almost identical fear of being found out. This is a well-recognised phenomenon in the gender and leadership literature, described as, “imposter syndrome“: the fear of being found out.
Notwithstanding my bravado or Paul’s, I suspect neither of us felt quite as sure of our place as future leaders as we expressed. I know I didn’t. Nor, however, did I fear being found out in quite the same way the women had expressed. I may have worried a little about whether my performance would be good enough (was I leadership material?), but I did not experience the depth of self-doubt expressed by my colleagues. I had been invited into the room and, therefore, I had a right to be there! They received the same invitation but doubted their right.
An article in the Harvard Business Review on overcoming the feelings of inadequacy associated with imposter syndrome described individual, cognitive behavioural techniques (CBT) to help people manage the sense. If these techniques work, that’s great! The solution, however, reveals at least as much about organisational gender bias as it does about ways to overcome it. Underlying the CBT approach is not simply a view that self-doubt is misplaced, but that there is a deficit in the way a person’s brain works if they have that self-doubt. In other words, to succeed in leadership, you need to think more like me! The obverse problem, having an over-inflated and unrealistic view of one’s own excellence, is often rewarded in organisations, and the sufferer (or more likely the insufferable) is never referred to a Psychologist for therapy “because you’re not thinking right”. Having the 3-Cs of certitude, charisma and chutzpah — typically identified as leadership qualities and never as leadership deficits — means that you are thinking right.
It is worth noting that although the women expressed the fear of being found out, they had all applied for and won highly coveted VicHealth Fellowships, and they were all in that room — even with their doubt.
The researcher, Thomas Chamorro-Premuzic, suggests that many of the 3-C style traits that are traditionally associated with great leaders may in fact be emblematic of leadership weaknesses. Being quieter (a listener), more thoughtful (open to new ideas) and having some self-doubt (seeking out a diversity of expert advice) can be valuable traits in good leadership. These are traits often associated with women who are passed over for leadership positions because they have not yet had their “deficits” corrected.
There are some clearly terrible traits for research leaders to have. Being a bully, mean, harassing staff and being incompetent would be high on that list. In research leadership, raw incompetence would be unusual. The others, sadly, are not. Research organisations need methods for identifying good research leaders that do not fall back on tired tropes, and provide women fair paths of advancements. These are organisational systems issues, not individual deficits to correct. Almost two decades ago, Rob Moodie’s conversations in leadership was a gentle step in that direction: making us all ask the question, what is it to be a great leader? He never said, by I suspect that he hoped we would carry forward some insight into the leadership a-gender.