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The Goldilocks Syndrome: How Americans React to Women Leaders

Women leaders don’t have it easy.  Not that men do, but WOW — listening to the reactions of American’s to women leaders this week during our instant response sessions, I saw firsthand how tough women can have it.  Be too ambitious and women run the risk of being perceived as calculated and heartless.  Too high energy or bubbly and you’re a ditz.  Too aggressive and well, you know the word people use for that…  Too passionate and you’re overly emotional.  The list could go on…

And so, this week I’m focused on how folks respond to women talking about the issues – from Putin to Gaza.  And because this is a piece on women, please indulge me in my use of a Goldilocks analogy.  It’s meant to show how it is possible for women to get it just right.

Hillary — this woman is too hard (but is that perception changing?)  I say this in jest.  Historically, Hillary has been perceived as being cold and calculated.  Respondents we spoke with in the past told us that, “every decision she has ever made is so that she could one day be President.”  A little extreme, but, I am seeing a slow shift in that perception.  People are more open to Hillary.  So, while every time she opens her mouth people know she is running for office — in all of her recent appearances — from The Daily Show to her appearance on Sunday’s talk show circuit — Hillary is using the art of storytelling to soften her image.  Stories are doing a lot for her.  They are setting the stage for everyone to understand how experienced she really is.  This is in stark contrast to her campaign in 2008.  Then instead of demonstrating that she had what it took to be President, she used a tagline of “ready to lead”— which left people wanting for more.  I remember one respondent then said to me, “really?  I sure hope she is ready to lead.  But she is going to have to do a lot more than just say it to prove it to me.” 

So, this week she went on TV and told stories about how she knew Putin and had negotiated with him in the past.  She called him “arrogant” and talked about how tough he was to deal with.  And, while not everyone LOVED her message, they are starting to come around to Hillary more and more.  The dial lines aren’t falling as they once did when she spoke.  And, I think it’s in part to the stories she is telling that help them realize that maybe, just maybe, she is ready to lead. 
The people’s grade on Hillary:  B. Still a little hard, but we are getting to know more of her.  So, while her recent appearances aren’t getting folks to run out the door to vote for her today, they are helping her build Presidential context and shaping the perception that maybe she is the right woman for the job.

Joan Rivers — this woman is TOO HOT.  So, for those of you who haven’t seen Joan Rivers on Gaza, I’d encourage you to watch it.  Joan Rivers has permission to be hot headed.  It’s part of her persona.  But, wow did she let loose this week in front of an American Airlines terminal!  She said, “If New Jersey was sending bombs in to New York” we wouldn’t stand for it.  People were amused.  Respondents even took to her analogy.  But they all thought she is just a little crazy. 
The people’s grade on Joan Rivers:  C. This was Joan Rivers being Joan Rivers.  And most said, “at least it’s clear where she stands.”  But, the consensus was that she took it just a bit too far…  One respondent summed it up when she said, “Blow up the tunnels and not the people.”  Sometimes when we are TOO passionate with our words, it repels.  So, while all agreed that her communication was clear, all were crystal clear that this was NOT language that leads.

Nancy Pelosi and Michelle Obama—these women are puppets.  Michelle Obama went on TV to encourage folks to vote.  Nancy Pelosi went on TV to talk about Putin.  And the response to both was the same, they are just playing politics and as one participant said, “they don’t have opinions of their own.”  Neither of them presented passion or personality.  Both were perceived to have a lack of deep understanding of any issue.  Unfortunately, voters have a low bar, they felt that this scripted type of communication is what they expect from both the first lady and elected officials today. 
The people’s grade on Nancy Pelosi and Michelle Obama:  D for Michelle F for Pelosi. The first lady gets a D largely because people don’t expect more from a first lady — though they still didn’t love her.  Nancy Pelosi gets an F because people expect a lot more from the Minority Leader of the House and a former Speaker of the House.  So here is what I say to them — Ladies, don’t be afraid to be yourselves.  In fact, it’s SUPER important that you do bring yourself, your own knowledge, and your personality to the table.  There certainly is an argument to be made that this is true for men too, but women need to be careful not to be perceived as having no handle on the issues or opinions of their own.  

Madeline Albright — this woman has it just right.  Madeline Albright went on Face the Nation and said, “To put it mildly, the world is a mess.” Respondents loved it.  She was a breath of fresh air.  She was informed and informative.  She was critical but at the same time she was level headed.  She was received so positively because she sounded like a leader willing to say what needs to be said. That’s something respondents said they just don’t see enough because as one person said, “they are too worried about re-election.”  We want our leaders to show us the way. To help us navigate the world. To be informed.  So, when it sounds like someone is actually doing that for once, we love it. We are hungry for it.  And, we want more of it. 
The people’s grade on Madeline Albright:  A. There is a great quote from the movie American President when Michael J. Fox as Lewis Rothschild says to the President, “People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they’ll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.” Well, when Madeline Albright spoke this week, Americans got the leadership that they have been waiting for.  Proof positive that women leaders can indeed get it just right.

These learnings apply to all of us women who are managing and leading.  We should use our stories.  We should keep a level head.  Take the time to explain our position and back it up.  And, importantly we should be true to ourselves.  Authenticity shows.  If you want to learn more about the language of leadership, we’re always here to help.  E-mail me at [email protected] and follow me on twitter at @lh_carter.