Stereotypes and Leaders.

The other day I was reading about a successful startup company’s journey and the CEO recalled that when he and his partners pitched for funds with VCs, the stock response they heard repeatedly was “How can you guys run a company , you are a bunch of introverts.” That brings two rather diverse thoughts to my mind, one, how do we decide in such a short meeting that a person is introvert, a weak leader, etc. etc., and two, do only extroverts succeed as leaders?

First about the Prejudiced eye:
Various societies have such strong pre-conceived notions linking age, looks, gender with expected behavior. This strict compartmentalization of traits is almost pathological if we think of management and leadership. If you wear spectacles you are viewed as academically good but athletically weak which quickly gets translated to introvert and extrovert. Men in general and men with mustaches in particular are seen as tougher than women. If you wear a dark color like red or black you are seen as aggressive otherwise you are seen as less assertive. These prejudices are almost universally prevalent, however in addition to this there are more prejudices to be seen which are country specific or society specific. In India for example if you tell only your first name, the other person will insist on hearing your surname more often than not. As soon as you tell your surname the other person starts connecting the dots of your region, caste, religion and creates a profile of your expected behaviors. Tamils and Bengalis are seen as intelligent but argumentative, Punjabis are seen as aggressive and the list goes on and on. Even though it is very clear that such compartmentalization is absolutely inaccurate and unnecessary, yet it continues to live on. Many careers are nipped in the bud because of such prejudices; many times decisions in interviews are taken even before the person has spoken a single word. I have personally faced and been at the receiving end of such discrimination. I have seen people judge me not on the basis of the results I generated or the behaviors I exhibited but by the first impressions I created on them which was based mainly on my regional identity and my overall look.

To an extent it is inevitable that we program our minds to connect certain behaviors with certain races or types of people. This is definitely a hurdle to better Management and leadership and we must watch out against it.

Many Western countries have enacted elaborate and strict laws to discourage any discrimination on the basis of region, religion, sex and even age. This, even though not working completely, is helping them create a more equitable and competency based work environment.

That brings me to the second thought — do only aggressive managers succeed? Well, research does support the hypothesis that outgoing people, extroverts, make better managers. However this was more relevant when Management essentially meant getting maximum productivity from an underpaid, ill educated workforce working mechanically, and the output being directly proportional to the physical effort done. Things have changed. Recent research has shown that when the workers are well-informed and proactive it is the soft spoken, high on listening manager who gets better results. The same study also concludes that the dominating , aggressive leader feels threatened when the people he leads are pro-active.

If we look into the past, we can see that leaders as diverse as Gandhi and Steve Jobs , both have succeeded in their own ways. There are hundreds of examples of mild, soft spoken leaders doing very well as well as failing and the same is true with aggressive dominating leaders. No strict rules can really be laid therefore.

The traits of being able to create a compelling vision and making people want to exert to move towards that vision is what makes a great leader. The need is to look at behaviors, traits and not allow the vision to be clouded by race, color, gender, etc.