Sunday, December 25, 2011

Leaders are human beings

Leadership seems not to be divisible; it absorbs the person totally. This credo is accepted in business but also in politics. We experienced this already four years ago when Barack Obama was elected President. Even though he had small children at the time, there was barely any discussion of how he could carry out the two responsibilities, namely the Presidency and fatherhood. But if Michelle Obama had been elected President, certainly everybody would have been discussing this matter. The difference in judging the same situation between a man and a woman is even more astonishing, as both are well educated and successful in their profession.

Recently a similar situation occurred in Switzerland. A 39 year old (young!) man, Alain Berset, was elected as Swiss Federal Council.  His wife is also very successful in her profession. The couple has three young children. Again there was little public discussion that Alain Berset as Federal Council will barely have time to see his three children. We – as a culture - obviously think it is more important that our leaders carry out their professional tasks full-time, rather than that they spend part of their time with family duties. We consider that their duties lie in their professional life and not in their private life as human beings. This is especially true for men.

This understanding asks either for specific personalities and values for leaders, or that failing, it accepts that leaders simply bear the stress due to the tension between their professional and private lives. What is however mostly overlooked is that the values and personalities of such leaders also influence the understanding of leadership in society, which thus far emphasizes an instrumental and not human oriented worldview. Moreover, it hinders men to think about their multiple roles, and how they might coordinate them with their partners.

But why should it not be thinkable that an American President or a Swiss Federal Council work part time? And more provocatively, that a man actually asks to work part time as President or Federal Council? Are the experiences of parenthood so negligible that we prefer our leaders to just be professionals?

If we don't start to see our leaders more as human beings, we can’t expect that they will be humanly oriented. We should change our priorities in this respect. In case studies we carried out with students at the University of Zurich and also in other studies (see e.g. Shellenback, K. (2004). Child Care & Parent Productivity: Making the Business Case), it becomes obvious that shared leadership in firms, leads to higher motivation but also to additional competences based on the experiences of parenthood. These studies also make clear that we need more leaders who are asking for shared leadership and more examples of good practices. So let us look for new ways of leadership in 2012. I am looking forward to your experiences on our blog.

Sybille Sachs

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