When you think about the classic American corporate executive from 50 years ago, what “type” comes to mind? Probably the Marlboro Man: a hypermasculine fiftyish white guy, stern and stoic, making flinty-eyed decisions based on the cold-blooded math of profit and loss. Don Draper meets Jack Welch.
For decades, that stereotype held American business in a chokehold. A 2005 Catalyst report found that women in business were seen as caretakers while men “took charge.” Even academics weighed in: A 2011 meta-analysis found that people associated leaders with traditionally masculine adjectives like “dominant,” “forceful,” and “competitive.” Women, on the other hand, were “warm,” “compassionate,” and “affectionate.”
Guess those researchers never met Elizabeth Holmes, right? Rimshot. But we digress.
Even more telling was that when female leaders displayed the same qualities admired in male leaders, they were seen as pushy, abrasive…bitchy. Even though research suggests they’re better at leading through a crisis. Another 2011 study found that, because of stereotyping, Black leaders were evaluated negatively regardless of their performance. Even God is normally depicted as an old (undoubtedly straight) white dude.
Stereotypes are a perceptual shorthand that lets us quickly slot people into categories, and sometimes they’re useful—that is, until the facts get in the way. Well, the facts about what makes a leader in this new world of remote work and the Great Resignation have changed. Once, the chiseled-jaw charisma of a celebrity CEO was enough to bewitch employees and keep them from seeking greener pastures, but no more. There’s a new sheriff in town, and he/she/they don’t look a damn thing like Clint Eastwood.
Stereotypes are entitlements
Types have always been a form of entitlement. Until recently, being a straight, white, Christian male with an Ivy League education entitled you to take the express lane to a corner office. No matter your profession or pursuit, conforming to a certain type entitled you to be taken seriously, score prime opportunities, and enjoy a smoother glide path toward your goals.
We’ve experienced this. When we launched our branding agency, Motto, nearly fifteen years ago, no one gave us a second look because we didn’t fit the “type.” We were a couple of young girls with guts who had the audacity to challenge a branding industry dominated by (say it with us) middle-aged white guys. Established agencies disrespected and undermined us to the point where we almost quit . . . until their best clients started coming to us because our work was fresh and new.
For every type, there’s someone who obliterates it. Exhibit A: Patton Oswalt, a stocky comedy and TV star with an enormous, Lego-block head, a ripsaw stage voice that’s a cross between Kermit the Frog and the late Sam Kinison, and a wit that’s part doting dad, part perverted uber-nerd. Yet he sells out venues and charms fans in numbers that more debonair performers can only dream about.
Exhibit B: Simone Biles. The GOAT fits the gymnast physical stereotype—tiny, agile, and powerful—but she defied every expectation during the 2021 Summer Games when she walked away from Olympic gold for the sake of her mental health. Wait, what? Isn’t being an Olympian all about sacrificing everything for a chance to stand on that podium? Not anymore. Biles, rightly hailed as a hero for putting self-care above sport, changed the game.
Exhibit C: Martine Rothblatt, a transgender American lawyer, entrepreneur, and trans rights advocate who also happens to be CEO of $1.4 billion biotech company United Therapeutics. In 2018, she was also the highest-paid chief executive in the biopharmaceutical industry.
But if time and an increasingly diverse society have worn down the John Wayne leader stereotype, like an elusive boxer slipping punches, COVID-19 was the haymaker that put it on the canvas. When employers sent everyone home in 2020, millions of individual contributors realized (perhaps for the first time) that they really liked not having their bosses looking over their shoulders and delivering hackneyed motivational speeches. To help them weather the anxiety and isolation, what they needed were superiors who could provide connection, relatability, vulnerability, and humanity.
Unfortunately, too many leaders, handcuffed to the stereotypes that got them to the C-suite in the first place, failed to answer that call. Consequently, everything has changed. In September 2021, a record 4.4 million people walked away from their jobs seeking better pay and greater meaning. That unprecedented labor void has given workers unprecedented power, and they’re sending a loud, clear message. They’re fed up with demigod CEOs and empty suits whose chief qualification is looking like they belong at board meetings. They’re throwing their support behind relatable, fallible men and women who admit when they’re wrong, wear their values on their sleeves, and care about people. Today’s workers want to look at their leaders and see equals.
The reign of Rare Breeds
But a lot of us are misfits, outcasts, or troublemakers who don’t play well with others, right? That means that in this new world, the most effective leaders will be unconventional geniuses who hail from every possible background. Those people even have a name: Rare Breeds.
Rare Breeds are nonconformists who gleefully defy mainstream leadership stereotypes. In fact, they can be identified in the wild by one of seven Virtues (commonly mislabeled “vices” by the ignorant and terrified):
In the past, Rare Breeds filled an organization’s quota of perfectionist designers, Doctor Who-quoting engineers, temperamental teachers, or damn-the-torpedoes business development people, but they were rarely more than fringe players, barely tolerated and even less understood. If they were entitled to anything, it was mostly snickers (not the good kind), head shakes, and eye rolls.
But today, facing a changing climate, mutating viruses, fragile supply chains and a labor uprising, organizations no longer have the luxury of elevating leaders who fit a certain type and praying they’re more than empty suits. We need provocative innovators, dangerous new perspectives, and big ideas just crazy enough to work. We need leadership and we need it now. We won’t get it from the Marlboro Men. We’ll get it from the nerds and weirdos. We’ll get it from Rare Breeds.
In fact, Rare Breeds are already leading, defying types and expectations. Lachi, a New York-based singer, musician, songwriter, voice actor, and producer who’s also Black and blind, is breaking ground as an outspoken advocate for greater inclusion of people with disabilities in the arts. In November, Vito Perillo was re-elected mayor of Tinton Falls, New Jersey—at 97 years old. At age twelve, Vinisha Umashankar began designing a solar-powered ironing cart to replace the coal-fired carts that polluted the air of her hometown in southern India; by 2021 her invention had won global acclaim and she delivered a passionate speech at COP26, the U.N. climate change summit.
Rare Breed at scale
None of these Rare Breeds, or the thousands of others like them, fits the traditional leadership type. That’s what makes their rise such cause for hope. So, who needs to be convinced that leader stereotypes are dead? First of all, the press. Business journalists want cut-and-dried narratives, and they either ignore or misrepresent rebels and mavericks. But hand them a great story and they’ll get it right.
Second, shareholders and investors. Quarter-by-quarter thinking breeds conservatism and fear of the avant-garde, but these folks always respond to results. If Rare Breeds deliver strong earnings and growth, their personality, skin color, or gender identification don’t matter.
Finally, leaders themselves. It’s tough to ask someone to embrace their own obsolescence. However, the real visionaries recognize that something has to change, and they’ll evolve or step out of the way for the next generation. The poseurs and haircuts…well, they’ll run aground or fade away.
One group that doesn’t need convincing? Employees. They know leadership is broken, and they’re ready to look at their leaders and see themselves. Awkward. Impatient. Proud. Wounded. Coarse. BIPOC. Queer. Trans. Bursting with passion, ideas, and energy.
Perhaps that’s the new “type.” Original.
How do we find such people? A new metric of leadership: The Rare Breed® Personality Test. What is the dominant trait and how does a leader score within the seven traits of a Rare Breed? Do they lead with awe-inducing Audacity like Elon Musk or heart-centric Emotion like Indra Nooyi? Do they bury the needle with Hot-Blooded intensity like Jeff Bezos or fight with a Rebellious spirit like Steve Jobs once did? The future of leadership is defiant, dangerous, and different, and the time has come for Rare Breeds to take our place at the front of the room.
Sunny Bonnell and Ashleigh Hansberger are founders of Motto and authors of Rare Breed: A Guide to Success for the Defiant, Dangerous, and Different.