Does Race or Gender Make the Leader?


There are many different definitions of Leadership. Of course, these vary dramatically depending on whom you are asking and in what context you may be referring. They all have common themes, but when diversity (such as race and gender) within leadership becomes the focal point, and when a spotlight on the uncontrollable physical attributes of an individual somehow becomes relevant to their ability to lead, the definitions of leadership can become contorted and become worthless altogether.

Forbes did a story entitled “Top 10 Qualities That Make a Great Leader“. The article presented qualities such as honesty, the ability to delegate, communication, a sense of humor, confidence, commitment, a positive attitude, creativity, intuition, and the ability to inspire as their top 10 (Prive, 2012). When searching scholarly and media-based articles, one finds much of the same. Still, in more than fifty articles searched for this post, no mention of a single physical attribute was found to be necessary regarding leadership ability. Is that weird?

The question then becomes, why is this aspect ignored in the definition if we are told it is so important? Why do we not read that gender or race is as crucial to leadership as the ability to communicate or delegate tasks? Is that because it would be considered racist or sexist? Or is it because such a notion is ridiculous and an insult to intelligence? Perhaps. How have we allowed such ideas to become acceptable? This, in and of itself, has become a bigger issue than most are willing even to recognize.

To illustrate this point, we must consider James Burns’ definition of leadership. Burns says that leadership is “leaders inducing followers to act for certain goals that represent the values and the motivations—the wants and needs, aspirations and expectations—of both leaders and followers” (Hickman, G. R., 1998). Notice that Burns didn’t mention anything about color or gender. Burns made no mention of any attribute being an indicator of ability.

Perhaps it would be appropriate to look at a few other definitions of leadership before drawing a solid conclusion. Philip Gafka (2012), the founder of the leadership development firm Leap Associates, says, “Leadership is employing your skills and knowledge, leveraged by your attitude to get the results you desire.” Robert Preziosi (2012), professor and past chairman of management at Nova Southeastern University’s Huizenga School of Business, says, “Leadership is actions committed by a person or group that produce an output or result. It simply helps people to get things done. It is not based on position in a hierarchy.” Jonas Falk (2012), a chef and the CEO of OrganicLife, a startup that provides nutritious school lunches, says, “Leadership is the ability to take an average team of individuals and transform them into superstars. The best leader is the one who inspires his workers to achieve greatness each and every day.

Numerous definitions of leadership, and still not a word about a physical attribute. Once again, would such words be racist or sexist? The truth is that we are beginning to find that relating attributes to either criteria or definition regarding leadership are wrong, dangerous, and counterproductive.

An organization’s main goal is to thrive. Common sense tells us that an organization cannot thrive without great leadership. As demonstrated, great leadership does not derive from skin tone or gender. The point is that if we collectively focus only on the diversity of the group’s leadership, all of the different definitions of leadership appear to be worthless. It is apparent that diversity is not a critical aspect when we look at the grand scheme of leadership.

The topic of slavery is usually where this conversation leads. We use this topic as an excuse to forcibly diversify our current institutions due to historical inequalities while we (and history) try to forget the diversity of that institution’s origination. The fact remains that in America, slave OWNERS were comprised of female and male individuals of African, Arabic, and European descent. Furthermore, the slaves themselves consisted of the very same sets. So we use slavery as an excuse while ignoring that the real difference between slave and owner was based on the difference between the weak and the strong, not of color or gender. This is a vital truth in this discussion.

Regardless of gender or color, the slave owners had an amazing ability to instill fear into their followers. Fear is not the best leadership approach, but I am using this to make the point. That point is that leaders motivated their subjects out of fear, not color or gender. “In fact, the oldest method of motivation is fear. Physical strength was originally the source of power, and weaker members of the group followed orders because they feared the physical punishment that was sure to result from refusal to conform” (Strategic-Essentials, 2010). It was authoritarian leadership in action – not affirmative action. The second point is that the tactic was effective.

Some might debate whether a slave owner was a leader at all instead of just cruel. This is a distraction method because, by most definitions, we would have to concede that they were leaders. In the classic definition of the word, leadership is merely the action of leading a group of people or an organization. Burns even referenced the common definitions being “leaders making followers do what followers would not otherwise do, or as leaders making followers do what the leaders want them to do” (Hickman, 1998). Again, no references to a physical attribute.

This is not a debate about shedding the past’s social, gender, or racial inequalities or even how difficult that road has been. One could easily debate that progress has been made. According to US Labor Department statistics, in January 2010, more women than men were on payrolls (Mulligan, 2010). As of June 2012, people of color made up 36 percent of the labor force (Burns, Barton, & Kerby, 2012). Setting aside the political discussion that usually follows such a statement, we should at least be able to concede that these are improvements. Still, these numbers do not reflect the point of leadership.

We must recognize that we do not choose the gender or race we are born with. Still, we pretend that these attributes do not exist, while at the same time, organizations are seeking these attributes to place within their ranks and trying desperately to show the world that they are diverse. Meanwhile, they continue to deny that such attributes even exist or influence their decisions. In some cases, this comes from the law; in others, it is merely for the perception of inclusion. However, by passive participation in these practices, many organizations are suffering because instead of seeking the best person for the position, they are filling positions for the sake of the physical attribute.

No doubt forced diversity has seen its victories, but it has also had its setbacks. Picking someone based purely on physical attributes will more than likely land an organization someone with less than desirable qualities. In other words, being female or having a certain skin tone does not equate to having honesty, the ability to delegate, the ability to communicate, etc. This is a slippery slope anyway because when one is openly hired or fired based solely on certain physical attributes, it has the ability to be prosecuted as sexual harassment or discrimination. This is blatant hypocrisy by any measure.

The purpose of this article is not to seek answers so much as better define the problem. I can concede to the idea that some organizations would not be diverse had a law not forced them into it. Still, the idea of forcing an organization to hinder its processes for a physical attribute seems asinine. The result cannot possibly be a good one. For instance, forcing diversity at the National Black Chamber of Commerce (NBCC) seems counterproductive to its mission. While their organization (and many other organizations like it) could be considered a racist organization, forced diversity and affirmative action laws are not entirely needed because their intent is understood and somehow accepted by the majority.

Affirmative action was designed to ensure that an applicant’s full background and life experience were considered part of an admissions decision or hiring process (Kurland, 2012). Anyone (today) could agree with this premise, but this is not what happened in practice. What happened was that a less qualified person often took the seat of a highly qualified person for the sake of diversity, not quality. This eventually took place on the leadership levels as well, and the problems are becoming evident today. In fact, Gail Heriot, a member of the US Commission on Civil Rights and professor of law at the University of San Diego, says that “mounting empirical evidence that race preferences are doing more harm than good—even  for their supposed beneficiaries.” She goes on to say that “we now have fewer African-American physicians, scientists, and engineers than we would have had using race-neutral admissions policies. We have fewer college professors and lawyers, too. Put more bluntly; affirmative action has backfired” (Heriot, 2013).

It is rather simple, though. If a leader gets into a position by physical attributes alone, the chances of having the wrong leader are probably pretty good. This is not a good situation for any organization considering where the organization might be led and for what reasons. If a leader is chosen based on attributes alone, could that leader be trusted fully? If the organization did not choose based on quality, would the decisions made by the leader be followed without question? Will that leader be followed at all? Long-term, what will happen to the leader who is constantly questioned or overridden because of the lack of trust or inability? What happens to the organization itself? All valid cause-and-effect questions should be considered.

Understand that many different positions within many organizations can be forcibly diversified, but these are usually positions held by the followers. It is also recognized that key workforce sectors and many organizations lack diversity (Burns, Barton, & Kerby, 2012). For instance, we do not exactly see diversity on the board of the NAACP. These points are not in dispute. The point is that by any definition,  we can clearly see that physical attributes play absolutely no role in the making of a great leader or their performance and, therefore, should in no way be required or considered when seeking a leader or describing one.

The best way to say it would be as follows: the term diversity in leadership should not be sought so much as something appreciated. Or, better yet, diversity in leadership should reflect the numerous qualities within the individual rather than the attributes they had no part in choosing. When we think of leadership, we should not see the attribute; we should revere the qualities.

If you value yourself as a leader, perhaps at least one of your duties should be to guide people away from ignorant thoughts and turn such energies to the legitimate endeavor of fixing our broken system. Gender and race should not be the focus—the best person for the position above all else.