Leadership Expectations for the First Woman President

It's time to start thinking seriously about how a woman will manage the world's most powerful office. It's going to be a fascinating addition to the ongoing debate over the differences between male and female leadership styles -- including whether those differences even exist.
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The only way Hillary Clinton's hints at a run for president could get any broader would be to hang a sign on the White House fence: "Future home of America's first woman president."

Early this month, she incited an audience of 7,000 women at the Pennsylvania Conference for Women to wild applause by saying that cracking glass ceilings is "the great unfinished business of the 21st Century." She didn't reference the presidency. But with a group of women running through the hall waving signs that read "Run Hillary. Run" she didn't have to.

Her poll numbers are soaring, top campaign talent is already pouring the foundations for her run, and she has carloads of cash. Also in her favor is the fact that warring Republican tribes can't agree on what day it is, and primary candidates are again likely to slap and punch each other into cranky conservative positions out of step with a changing electorate.

It's time to start thinking seriously about how a woman will manage the world's most powerful office. It's going to be a fascinating addition to the ongoing debate over the differences between male and female leadership styles -- including whether those differences even exist.

Let's go to the stereotypes.

Men: assertive, aggressive, task-oriented, risk taking, dominating, and competitive. Women: instinctual, nurturing, collaborative, communicative, and responsive. Or as the title of Catalyst research study exposing leadership stereotypes summed it up: "Women Take Care. Men Take Charge."

The popular assumption is that female leadership attributes are a superior fit for information societies, where hierarchies have given way to networks, and command and control has handed the reins to shared leadership.

The problem with the binary parsing of male and female styles of leadership is that there is scant empirical evidence to support either. The perceptions of male and female leaders are indelibly colored by what we expect them to be. And even if those tendencies exist in a measurable way, there is equally meager evidence that they have influenced decisions.

Still, gender expectations are so ingrained that defying them can come at personal cost. Aggressive and competitive women can be called everything from harsh to hormonal. Men -- as well as women -- who are empathetic and responsive can be called soft. Only the tough guy boss seems to get a pass: he's excepted, even respected, because he fits our long-conditioned ideals of how take-charge leaders lead.

Now comes the prospect of Hillary Clinton.

The first female leader of the free world is going to be discussed and dissected not just for her results, but -- from day one -- also her style. If she's caught raising her voice, she's a b__ ; too emotional for the job. If she shows cooperation and empathy, she's a den mother-in chief; not tough enough for the job.

We got a preview of how easily the media defaults to covering a woman differently than they would a man in Mrs. Clinton's run for presidency in 2008. Writing in a 2008 New York Times article, Katherine Q. Steelye and Julie Bosman offered a few examples.

There was Chris Matthews calling Mrs. Clinton a "she-devil" who got as far as she has because her husband "messed around." Ken Rudin, an editor at National Public Radio, compared her to Glen Close (who boiled the bunny) in Fatal Attraction. "She's going to keep coming back, and they're not going to stop her." And exhibiting the classic conundrum for tough women everywhere, commentator Tucker Carlson said on MSNBC: "When she comes on television, I involuntarily cross my legs."

As the writers point out, many argue that these were isolated incidents picked from a flood of coverage. But they did happen. They didn't happen to men. And it was only the Primary.

Other female world leaders have suffered similar scrutiny; but none under the klieg lights of the American presidency.

In some areas, Hillary Clinton lines up well with our expectations of female leaders. She is often described as a good listener and empathetic. She is said to work hard at personal connections -- remembering birthdays and calling with condolences over the death of a staffer's dog. She has developed the ability to reach across divisions to create what has been described as a global web of personal relationships. One of her signature campaign moments was the tear shed in New Hampshire that may have won her the state. Same state, 1972: campaign tears -- even though they might have been melting snow -- derailed the campaign of Democratic front-runner Edmund Muskie.

At the same time, she has traits that are stereotypically masculine: blunt, focused, with an appreciation that mundane mechanics are as important as soaring inspiration. She is famously impatient with wasting time -- particularly with meandering meetings.

Over the course of a career, we are all shaped by the jobs we hold. It's the human equivalent of the medium influencing how the message is perceived. It's hard to imagine any medium as powerfully dependent on perception than the Presidency of the United States -- or more likely to force its imprint on the individual who wins it.

The ultimate test of style -- although the word "style" may trivialize in this context -- is global conflict. In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker argues that across history "war is a man's game" and "women have been a pacifying force."

What about leaders like England's Margaret Thatcher and Israel's Golda Meir, who led their countries to war after rising to power by being even tougher than the tough guys? He counters that, as more women hold high office, there will be less pressure to play the game by traditionally male rules.

Would a female president have pushed us into the second Iraq War? Would the stereotypical female drive for collaboration and consensus have tempered the primarily male certainties of American exceptionalism? We won't know until the next global face-off, and there is a female at the helm.

If Hillary Clinton becomes that female in 2016, we will, for the first time in history, see female leadership qualities settle in behind the desk in the Oval Office. Will those qualities be a global object lesson that sets a new tone for leadership? Or will the pressures of the office and the realities of politics force them to the side in favor of a harder edge and a bit of swagger?

Odds are, we're about to find out what leadership looks like when the leader of the free world is called Madam President.

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