Marissa Mayer: It’s not a gender issue, it’s a leadership issue

Posted March 11, 2013 in Latest News & Insights, Leadership

Since announcing that Yahoo! was pulling the plug on telework arrangements, 37 year old CEO Marissa Mayer has been making headlines for either her a) lack of judgment or b) courage to take an unpopular stand.  Overwhelmingly, option A is the one that’s generated the most buzz with even Richard Branson chiming in on Mayer’s lack of foresight.  Many people feel that Mayer is being vilified because she’s a woman.  In fact, many of the arguments in support of telecommuting rationalize that it’s this type of workplace flexibility that allows working mothers to, well, work.  And, isn’t it nice for Mayer who has a daycare cozily installed right next to her office for her child.  Here’s the problem: this isn’t a gender issue.  It’s a leadership issue.  Here’s why:

Marissa Mayer is a brilliant, 37 year old wunderkind who’s holding one of a handful of Fortune 500 CEO posts.  I don’t know Marissa Mayer personally, but I’m guessing you have to be seriously brilliant to get to that post at that age.  So, she’s really, really smart.  Awesome. But being smart is only one part of the effective leadership equation.  The other part is the EQ (or emotional intelligence) part.  On that front, Mayer seems to be less equipped. Here’s what one of her former Google colleagues said about her in an article in Business Insider:

“This source described an executive who “will work harder than anyone” and “is smarter than 99 percent of the people,” but “can’t scale herself” and “doesn’t understand managing any other way than intimidation or humiliation.”

This source says that when she worked with Mayer at Google, Mayer “was just a nightmare”—someone who had her own publicist, forced underlings to sign customized NDAs, and maintained “a shadow HR staff and a shadow recruiting staff just for her team.”

“No one understood why she had the power that she had, except that she will literally work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.”

This wouldn’t be the first time that a high IQ CEO demonstrated low to no EQ.  Mayer has been likened to Steve Jobs of Apple in terms of her technical smarts.  Google “Steve Jobs is an asshole” and you’ll get over 1.1 million hits.  People might argue that this shows you don’t have to have high EQ to be a great CEO… you can be an abusive asshole and still run a successful company.  My response to that would be this: those people aren’t real leaders.  They’re dictators, megalomaniacs and abusers who happen to be really, really brilliant which allows their behaviour to be tolerated.  But they’re not great leaders.

I don’t think Marissa Mayer’s gender has anything to do with her recent leadership challenges at Yahoo!  I think her lack of emotional smarts does.  By applying a heavy hand around this telecommuting issue, Mayer has set the stage for the best and brightest to walk out the door.

For those who think Mayer is brave for confronting a problem in the culture, I’d say this:  great leaders don’t shy away from tough conversations they have them… with the individuals who are causing the problems.  If some people are abusing the telecommuting set up deal with those people directly.  Mayer actually took a cowardly route by issuing command and control edicts that are going to send a challenged company’s morale further into the toilet.

The most brilliant strategy in the world will only come to life with the participation and support of the people who can make it happen (eg: the employees).  And, gender has nothing to do with bad leadership.  Mayer is being vilified in the press about this decision probably because we have a stereotype that says that female leaders are better at the EQ stuff.  We’ll know we’re truly treating men and women equally in the workplace when we acknowledge the fact that both genders can be assholes and talk about the behaviour itself and not the gender of the person the behaviour’s attached to. Period.

Happy leading!


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