Overlooked: When Women Are Passed Over for Leadership
In a recent article for the Harvard Business Review, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, CEO of Hogan Assessment Systems and professor of business psychology, looks beyond the familiar theories for why there are not more women in management positions (e.g., lack of capability, lack of interest, and the ubiquitous glass ceiling) in hopes of finding something more essential. His conclusion is as brave as it is honest:
We commonly misinterpret displays of confidence as a sign of competence, we are fooled into believing that men are better leaders than women. … The only advantage that men have over women is the fact that manifestations of hubris—often masked as charisma or charm—are commonly mistaken for leadership potential, and that these occur much more frequently in men than in women.
Sadly, this phenomenon is not limited to the business world. Consider these two church scenarios:
Scenario #1. Mike* was a brilliant seminarian who charmed his leaders and parishioners with his engaging, self-effacing sermons. As the years went by, those who worked closely with him began to see him from a different, less favorable vantage point. He refused to be challenged, dismissed alternative points of view, and lacked empathy. Despite these realities, he was celebrated and promoted within his denomination. Less than ten years after becoming a pastor, Mike had a crisis of faith, admitted that he no longer felt called to pastor, and moved on.
Scenario #2. When a large, Midwestern church felt ready to hire a full-time worship leader, they embarked on a year-long search. They curiously overlooked Jennifer* who had faithfully served on the church’s worship team and displayed both maturity and gifting. Instead, they offered the job to Steve*—a hip, dynamic singer who dazzled everyone with his musical skills. It didn’t take long, however, for his relational limitations to overshadow his musical abilities. Stories soon began to surface about his rude treatment of volunteers and a general unwillingness to collaborate. He left before his one-year anniversary, stating that God was now directing him back home.
Not only did these men blame God rather than take responsibility for their incompetence, they also confirm Chamorro-Premuzic’s theory. My guess is most of us could provide similar examples of men in church settings who have been offered positions of leadership and promoted over more mature, qualified, women. Why is this? The author explains,
The same psychological characteristics that enable male managers to rise to the top of the corporate or political ladder are actually responsible for their downfall. In other words, what it takes to get the job is not just different from, but also the reverse of, what it takes to do the job well.
This was true for both Mike and Steve.
Broken Forms of Leadership
Chamorro-Premuzic’s article does not discredit or dishonor men, but rather focuses specifically on incompetence and discriminatory management practices. It also notes that women tend to have higher emotional IQ, more humility, and more interest in working as a team than men in management.
Because women are likely to value the relational component of leadership—how we’re treating and connecting with others—alongside programmatic and institutional success, we often have a more holistic approach to leading. In my experience, this often keeps our feet on the ground and our hearts open to correction.
Curiously, as many churches rely on business metrics to gauge leadership success, we are increasingly encouraged to forsake our unique gifts and adopt the broken masculine style described by Chamorro-Premuzic. In my three decades of church leadership, I confess I’ve occasionally battled self-hatred and been tempted to mimic male leaders, simply so I could gain a place at the table.
Ultimately, that temptation replicates the ruse offered to Jesus during his 40-day trial in the desert: the temptation of power. Just as Jesus refused to bow down, so must we. When we assume that arrogance should trump humility or that our intellect exempts us from needing to engage in conversation with our team members, we have capitulated to a system that silences the powerless. By regarding these traditionally male forms of leadership as better than the forms of leadership that come more naturally to women, we edge dangerously toward misogyny.
All of us will most likely be treated unfairly and encounter subtle—and sometimes not so subtle—forms of sexism in the church. Three things are imperative to avoid compromising our leadership. First, we must commit to forgive any men who knowingly or unknowingly are guilty of these behaviors. Remember: Forgiveness does not mean that we deny our wounds and function as stoics. If we fail to forgive, we become reactive, bitter, and dismissive. This posture fails to honor God and the men in our lives.
Second, we must avoid envy and refuse to seek the approval of people. It’s easy to equate public recognition, promotions, and invitations to speak with success. In the eyes of Christ, success means something different: treating others with dignity, choosing to serve rather than demanding to be served, and ensuring that those on our teams feel loved and well cared for. Though the temptation to please people is ever before us, the world’s measure of success uses metrics that are biased against our strengths, and we will always be found lacking. Rest in this truth: Even if those in power never notice our efforts or acknowledge our contributions, nothing that we do for God or his kingdom is ever wasted.
Finally, we need to make peace with the unique ways that God has gifted us, and faithfully walk in these gifts with integrity all the days of our lives. When we choose to embrace our gifts and be grateful for our God-given attributes, we can finally be free from self-doubt and self-opposition.
Let us endeavor to avoid the pitfalls of broken male leadership, and instead, confidently lead like the strong, competent women God created us to be.
*Names have been changed
The author of this piece has chosen to stay anonymous for the protection of those involved in the above scenarios.