Stereotypes are short cuts, mental habits of taking a few data points and drawing big assumptions from them. In any professional career, they're insidious and dangerous because they imply that each of us can be easily categorized. As such, they limit what others think we can do -- and, often, what we think we can do. One of the worst things about stereotypes is that they can be compelling enough to make us conform to them. My last post was about the stereotypes that impede women's careers, but men aren't immune from them either. So what are the stereotypes that block male careers?
The Superhero. In the old days of command-and-control, the heroic model of leadership reigned supreme. Or, as the COO of a Fortune 100 company once told me, "The great leader is supposed to go into his tent and come out with the answer. Alone." The idea that any complex problem can be wrestled into submission by one person working alone can make it seem like weakness to ask for help.
The Nerd. Silent number-crunchers are assumed to be brilliant but emotionally under-developed. Blame the Google boys and Bill Gates for this one. The problem with being classified a nerd is that first you have to come up with genius solutions to intractable problems -- alone, again. But in corporate politics, everyone needs friends. Being right is never enough.
The Green Beret. Loyal, dedicated and apparently impervious to exhaustion, this executive will work every working hour to put out a fire. He'll often inspire his team to do likewise, and the post-crisis parties are always a blast. The problem with being a Green Beret is that the troops often lose their love of firefighting, and you get burned out.
The Mom. These days, most dads want to know their kids before they're grown up -- and moms can't have careers unless childcare is shared. It's more acceptable than ever for men to participate in parenting, but it can make for a tough ride at work. One outstanding VC I worked with left his banking firm after his propensity for talking about his kids resulted in colleagues sending him a Mother's Day card. No wonder so many guys who want to see their kids' school play call it a "client meeting" instead.
As I've studied men's careers over the last 20 years, I'm horrified by how hard they have to fight to escape these stereotypes. They're seductive models of leadership that play to any man's desire to be effective and inspiring and the struggle to avoid them can become a career in itself. But you have to avoid them because, while they may deliver short-term satisfaction, ultimately they leave you too isolated to be successful. You probably can't avoid all of them all the time, but you can do a few things to mitigate the damage when they assail you:
- See each stereotype for what it is: a trap. Don't blame yourself -- but don't let the trap change your behavior.
- Do nothing to reinforce the stereotype. This is the most dangerous aspect of stereotypes. When people want you to be a superhero, it's tempting but dangerous to think you can satisfy them indefinitely.
- Cleave to the colleagues and friends -- men and women -- who see the whole you. We all need other people to remind us of the best that we can be.