Women are canaries in the coal mine of power. They fall over dead whenever work gets stifling. They groove wherever new models of business behavior are emerging: consensual management, flextime, the belief that work should have meaning. Women are early adopters of technology: They enthusiastically took to the skies right after Kitty Hawk, and they brought appliances into the home and typewriters into the office. If you want to know what’s new in the world of business, look to women.
For that reason, we won’t see great leaders until we see great women leaders. As role models, men are going flat, and men themselves are beginning to realize that. Carly Fiorina’s name was added to the list of candidates for Hewlett-Packard’s presidency by Lew Platt, the company’s then-CEO and president.
As president and CEO of Hewlett-Packard, Fiorina has a tremendous opportunity ahead of her — one that she’ll grasp neither by caring strictly about reputation nor by focusing on the creation of her personal brand. To realize the call of leadership, she must heed the call of legend. Legend is the missing ingredient in leadership — although you often see it in women. All attention today goes to the Brand Called You. The action and the meaning of legend are unknown.
How is a legend different from a brand? An alternative spelling of “legend” is g-u-t-s. A legend is someone who not only attains the heights but also does something to expand the envelope. Legends are people who act so daringly that they become bigger than life. In legend, there is an element of the inexplicable, the irrational.
Why is a legend a good thing? Because beyond all of the honing of reputations and the building of brands, what ultimately matters is stretching the container of leadership. Do the unusual, the unexpected, and you give yourself a wider platform on which to operate: Others expect you to be comfortable with risk, and they trust you with risk. Just as important, you give others permission to think outside the box. Legend involves a leadership feedback loop that people don’t like to talk about, because it’s trouble.
As women reach higher into the leadership stratosphere, they are doing all of the right things — but none of the “wrong” ones. Doing the wrong things means committing rough, difficult actions. You see this kind of behavior in bad-boy leaders. Larry Ellison does something wild, and his legend grows. Stories about Steve Jobs’s bad-boy reputation are rife. Even today, Jobs dresses in his signature black; it’s a sign that he’s still the pirate, the outlaw, the misfit.
Read about the greatest founders of all — the founding fathers of this country — and you’ll see that using the action language of legend is not a bad thing. George Washington and Benjamin Franklin consistently used that language: They did the outrageous; they put themselves in danger. Franklin used to chase storms to learn more about them; Washington once had several horses shot out from under him — and survived.
Look at the great female leadership legends: Benazir Bhutto, Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir. It doesn’t matter if you disagree with their politics, or deplore their triumphs or their losses. What matters is that they walked on the wild side. They burned, baby; they burned. They were bad girls. They weren’t afraid to risk their reputation, and they didn’t give a whit about brand. Start to build your legend, and you stop worrying about criticism. You begin to do something that fits into no known category. You give yourself latitude. You start to play on a bigger playing field. And then you begin to think that you can triumph. You begin to experience the kind of leadership that turns people at the top into heroes.
As part of my ongoing education in how leadership works, I recently had a choice: I could go uptown to hear a handful of Fortune’s “50 Most Powerful Women in American Business” give the same old speech about the opportunities for women at the top. Or I could go downtown to a little theater accurately named the Flea, where a women’s circus called “Volcano Love” was holding court.
I went downtown. I wasn’t the only one to make that choice. Also in the audience at “Volcano Love” were Sigourney Weaver and Madonna. Excluded from the gathering of Fortune’s “most powerful women,” these actresses have portrayed some of the most powerful characters in modern legend: Weaver starred as Dian Fossey in Gorillas in the Mist; she also played the heroine in the Alien movies. And Madonna, of course, has not only played Evita; she also plays the living legend known as Madonna.
Dian Fossey expanded the container of what women are. For Fossey, everything was difficult. She was afraid of heights, afraid even to walk downstairs in her native San Francisco. Yet she took herself to the jungles of Rwanda, where she bounded down ravines so that she could study mountain gorillas in the wild. There are stories of how she would light bonfires to keep the poachers away. They stayed away not because they were scared of the flames but because, when they saw her feed the fire with dollar bills, they thought that she must be crazy and dangerous.
The decision to go downtown was a no-brainer. “Volcano Love” makes it clear what the uptown girls are missing. The women in that show are doing what heroes do: challenging the rational. “Volcano Love” is the creation of Sarah East Johnson, a fire-eater, juggler, stilt dancer, and trapeze artist who founded the New York City — based dance company Lava. “I want to expand the models of what women can be, to see what all the possibilities are,” she says. Johnson named her company after the fiery heat of Earth’s inner forces, thereby celebrating the Earth’s struggle to rearrange its known categories. The disruptive force of a volcano also had its appeal. “What gets in your way can take you to someplace new,” says Johnson.
Johnson has a role model that I’m sure wasn’t mentioned uptown: “There is so much to learn from things that are beautiful and powerful. I drove across the country several years ago. And when I reached the Rocky Mountains, I felt that I wanted to be a Rocky Mountain. There are very few things in the world that you see and say, ‘That’s what I want to be’ — particularly if you’re a woman. How many role models are there that are really inspiring?”
What’s interesting here is that Johnson doesn’t just want to get to the top. She wants to be a powerhouse. The Fortune women say again and again in their magazine interviews that it wasn’t very hard to get to the top. Maybe that’s because the game that they’re playing is way too easy. Maybe that’s why, when you look at a comparable list of the most powerful male CEOs in America, you get builders, shapers, dazzlers: Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Jay Walker. Not people who get along by going along. Not people who get swept up in the current and pulled along by it, as the Fortune “most powerful women in business” have done.
Why isn’t there a woman leader to rival Steve Jobs or Bill Gates? Forget the old argument that women haven’t invested generations in business. Neither have the new male rich. In the new economy, everybody was born yesterday.
The most “powerful” women are good girls writ large and rational. And so their influence is small.
Why aren’t women going out and building the kinds of businesses that build society? After all, women start twice as many businesses as men do. Every 60 seconds in the United States, a woman starts a company. But such companies don’t grow very large. Why is it that most businesses that are started by women, or run by women, never reach the stage of becoming big-time players? Why do they never achieve the status of legend?
Legends reach into the realm of the heroic — testing themselves, daring to look ridiculous. (You think fighting a green monster is elegant?) Heroes, according to the mythologist Joseph Campbell, test themselves, put themselves into unfamiliar territory, risk their identity, and come back from an ordeal or adventure with a gift for the community. Heroes go on a personal journey that makes them whole. Having a special skill or talent isn’t enough. The risk, the challenge — that’s what makes a hero’s abilities increase.
As I sat in the audience at “Volcano Love,” I imagined the uptown scene. I thought about the uptown girls engaging in what they do best: genteel talk between morning fruit and afternoon salad.
The downtowners were willing not just to talk but also to do — to face the enemy. But the enemy isn’t men. Nor is it the intransigent corporation. The enemy is fear. Watching those women soar changed my metabolism, as if I’d just eaten a peach and sugar were flooding my brain. Their display of fearlessness makes you move. You enter their world to a blast of Johnny Cash: It burns, burns, burns a ring of fire. The Lava women have learned to move past their fear.
“Fear is something that comes up all the time in this particular kind of work,” says Sarah Johnson. “Sometimes, that fear is about how much something is going to hurt: ‘I can’t stay in this handstand for another minute,’ or ‘I can’t do one more handstand.’ And sometimes it’s a fear of a specific act, such as jumping backward through a hoop. You’re afraid that you’re going to fall on your head and that it’s going to hurt. But you tell yourself that you can do it, and then you have to do it — even though you’re afraid.”
The rest of us talk about the glass ceiling. Lava women fly right up to it and make it look like a cloud that might disappear if you blew on it. The rest of us groan about jumping through hoops. Lava women plunge through hoops — backward and in high heels. Lava women put themselves at risk. They face embarrassment at every moment. They are riveting to watch because you worry about them; you expect a spill. The Fortune women keep reassuring the rest of us through interviews how easy their rise was. Would Steve Case ever say that it wasn’t difficult to get to the top?
Okay, the downtown girls are not changing the world. But they do offer a lesson in what’s missing, not only from the world of women’s leadership but also from the world of leadership in general. Look at the latest dotcom startups: puny businesses, thin ideas, no risks. Something big is called for — something irrational.
Time for a little volcano in the world of leadership. Says Johnson: “A volcano destroys everything around it — but it brings new earth to the surface, and it has the ability to create an island. At the same time, it can destroy every house and plant and tree.”
Harriet Rubin (email@example.com) is the author of the “Princessa: Machiavelli for Women” (Doubleday, 1997) and “Soloing: Realizing Your Life’s Ambitions” (HarperCollins, 1999). She also directs a new Web site called Working Diva (www.ivillage.com).