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What does a leader look like?


The other day I mentioned that I was going to a meeting with a fellow executive director. “Where do you meet him? asked my companion. “Her,” I corrected. This perfectly well-intentioned exchange got me wondering: how do we instinctively envision directors, presidents, C-suite professionals – leaders?

Are senior executives not only male in our minds, but also white, clean-shaven and wearing a suit? Can we imagine them driving to meetings from the suburbs in their shiny sedans pumping out classic rock? In our imagination, do they have an Ivy League education or at least several degrees and certificates plastering their walls?

When doing a Google “CEO” image search, I found, of the top 10 photos, six of them were white men, three were white women, and one was a light-skinned man of color. All wore dark suits and all but one were photographed in a conference room or in a posh office. All 10 appeared to be able-bodied and middle-aged.

Professional leaders are prescribed to look a certain way and act a certain way. They have no visible tattoos or piercings, colored hair, or creative outfits. Maybe they live in certain zip codes and carry certain brands. They are expected to conform not only through things under their control like personal style, but are judged by integral elements such as race and gender.

A Harvard Business study found that more men named John run businesses (5.3%) than women with any name (4.1%). Companies with a CEO named David outnumber companies run by women (4.5%).

Zippia’s research indicates that 65.1% of leaders in the United States are white, 16.6% are Hispanic or Latino, 11.3% are black, 4.9% are Asian, and a measly 0.6% are Native American. or natives of Alaska. The same study claims that only 5% of our country’s leaders are LGBTQIA+.

Additionally, every president of the United States, arguably the nation’s most visible leadership role, has identified as a man and all but one have been white. The median age of new US presidents is 55.

Society has ingrained these expectations in us so relentlessly that some people can hardly imagine themselves in a leadership role. Although I have met many middle-aged white male leaders whom I deeply respect, I know a large number of people who are nothing like them and yet are extremely talented. People who don’t fit a traditionally professional personality can be just as effective.

We need to check our unconscious biases, certainly when we hire and promote, but also when it comes to our perception of leaders. Please don’t assume my meeting with a fellow director is with a man. Don’t assume that the edgy, ethnic, or heterogeneous person you meet has to be a bartender or an entertainer. Maybe they own a business, run a nonprofit, or are a leader in the industry. You can learn something new from them.

Julie Bowditch is executive director of the non-profit organization The CASA Project Worcester County.