“I'm all ears for your recommendations on good leadership books! If there are some that come to mind written by women in particular that would also be helpful.”
—Past Medicine Resident
Have you ever found yourself in a leadership talk and realized the sources and examples are all white men in traditional roles as corporate chief executive officers or senior political and military leaders? Have you scanned the leadership section in an online or brick-and-mortar bookstore and noticed the majority of books are written by white men with only a smattering written for women by women? As educators in leadership in the military and in medicine, we came to this epiphany after a casual question from a former resident asking for recommendations for leadership books written by women. The more we thought about it and more we looked, the more we realized how challenging it is to find leadership books or resources (podcasts, blogs, etc) by women or people of color.
Two events in particular brought this situation to light. One of our authors (KG) frequently speaks to senior military leadership groups about wellness and its critical role in effective leadership. She realized that her comments on wellness in leaders who are women were drawn from her actual practice with those women than any published resources, because there is such a paucity of available information. When she subsequently queried her audience (including women) about leadership resources, they only mentioned publications by white men. When she pressed specifically for publications by women, there was a resounding silence.
Another author (JH) was preparing for a talk on crisis leadership and realized his slide deck featured mostly quotes and book recommendations that were works of white men, with only one resource by a woman. He adjusted the slides to include a more diverse set of leaders. While teaching a master's level course on leadership, one of the students pointed out that the majority of the materials were again written by white men. This unwitting bias was a wake-up call to the unintentional way we propagate the notion of who a leader is.
What is appropriate diversity representation when teaching about leadership? One of the authors giving a talk on leadership lessons had a slide about who comes to mind when you think of leaders. The slide identified Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr, and Rochelle Walensky. A co-presenter commented that there should be more women for equal representation. What about other groups not represented? What constitutes equitable representation? Should we be targeting leaders from the queer community, Native Americans, and other ethnic groups, or catering to the most dominant groups? Choosing leadership examples is important and should be done with consideration of representation. Being personally aware of the potential lack of diversity when citing sources or using examples is the first step to being inclusive and ensuring equity in our educational practices.
Recognizing the lack of diversity in formal leadership curricula, we started looking for authors with gender, racial, and ethnic diversity. Online search engines are quick to provide you with the latest and most time-honored leadership treatises, almost all by white men; it is more difficult to find books, podcasts, or other references written by women and underrepresented authors. In reality, there are excellent leadership books by women and other minorities, but they are harder to find. Many leadership books written by women are marketed for female audiences, suggesting men do not need to appreciate or understand the unique challenges and qualities of more diverse leaders. It highlights the obvious neglect of specific leadership challenges and strengths of leaders that do not fit the white male leader image. What is it about women in leadership that publishers do not feel could appeal to a broader audience?
This raises two fundamental questions about teaching leadership: 1) What is it about traditional leadership teaching and education that makes it an inhospitable playing field for women and people of color? and 2) What changes do we have to make to meaningfully include people other than white men in leadership spaces?
White men have long held the spotlight as role models in traditional leadership education and publications. We know outstanding leaders exist among women, indigenous people, people of color, and the queer and gender non-conforming communities. In underrepresented and oppressed communities, it takes courage and conviction to endure in spaces that were not designed with your success in mind. It takes remarkable leadership to push systems and society to change, yet so often these groups are conspicuously absent from leadership curricula and talks focusing on leadership. When people of color or women are included in leadership talks, it is frequently an afterthought or “color commentary” rather than a primary source of information. When people from underrepresented groups are utilized to buffer the expanse of white men as examples, it is tokenizing and devalues the contributions they have made in their own right. We become more effective leaders if we incorporate the leadership experiences of all and not merely white men.
The precedent is that white men define and model the principles of effective leadership. The “one size fits all” framework is rarely challenged as limiting to more diverse individuals or circumstances. Not only has the nature of our government and corporate power been resistant to different tenets or diversity of leadership or leaders, it applauds leaders nurtured in the precepts of this framework. Activists, community leaders and groundbreakers in underrepresented groups struggle to obtain the same universal legitimacy within the American cultural hegemony, achieving notoriety in their own communities, but not broadly. It is rare that world-changing minority leaders achieve the same legitimacy that white male generals, chief executive officers, and scientists wield almost effortlessly.
What can we do about this as medical educators? Here are a few recommendations that we think are important for teaching about leadership and other topics as well.
Look at who you cite/reference during talks and with assigned readings. Ensure diversity in terms of gender, race and ethnicity, and sexual orientation and that you value the leadership and insights of all those you reference.
Ensure diverse representation of invited speakers on leadership and all topics. Avoid “manels” (panels with only male speakers). Review the past 3 years of speakers because what we measure demonstrates what matters to the organization.
Seek resources for personal development from a diverse set of authors and speakers.
Develop mentoring systems that pair diverse learners with more traditional leaders so that they (the leaders) learn to think more inclusively about who can be “groomed” for leadership roles. Pairing white men together only perpetuates the bias.
Think of the obstacles to leadership from the perspective of individuals with challenges to attain those positions. Provide resources and support early, including through opportunities.
Teaching trainees about leadership is critical. We can model the importance of diversity and inclusion by ensuring that we use a diverse set of speakers, references, and resources. We do not have the answer on how to optimize teaching leadership and ensuring diverse representation, but we hope that being aware of the issue will encourage presenters and educators to reflect on and consider what and who they choose to highlight in their educational materials.
Published online: March 16, 2022
Conflict of Interest: None.
Authorship: All authors had access to the data and a role in writing this manuscript.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.
Published by Elsevier Inc.