Companies & Industries

Girl Scouts: Creating 21st Century Leaders


The leader of the nearly 100-year-old group shares her views on what today's girls want and the continued relevance of the organization

Kathy Cloninger, chief executive officer of Girl Scouts of the USA since 2003, is in the process of transforming the venerable U.S. organization to ensure it remains as relevant to girls today as when it was founded in 1912. (I consider one of Kathy's predecessors as CEO, Frances Hesselbein, to be the greatest leader I have ever met.) The organization recently released a fascinating study on girls and their aspirations to leadership, so I invited Kathy to discuss what she sees for the next generation of women leaders. Edited excerpts of our conversation follow.

It seems to me women have made substantial gains in terms of leadership positions in Corporate America, in holding public office, etc., over the past 20 years. I would think we have quite a generation of girls who want to scale the highest reaches of power.

It's interesting you use the word power. Our study, which included a nationwide survey of girls and boys between the ages of 8 and 17, found that girls don't want power for power's sake. There is plenty of ambition there, to be sure, but what we found was girls aspire to a different kind of leadership that serves a bigger purpose. I think this both hopeful and challenging.

Challenging in what way?

It's clear from the research that girls care about leadership. However, they're turned off by the kind of leadership they see as prevalent in the culture, the kind of leadership that can be described as command and control. When we asked girls whether they aspired to leadership, more than half were ambivalent, and another 9% rejected it. We need a broader definition of leadership. The current command-and-control style of leadership is too limiting for girls.

If girls have a different conception of leadership, will they be able to compete for those top jobs when they come of age?

This isn't about choosing one leadership or management style over the other. I'd love to see a blended approach that combines decisiveness and action with collaboration and inclusion. Quite frankly, the world that these girls and boys will inherit is going to require it. The best leaders already embrace this approach—we just have to bring along the rest of society.

That's a pretty tall order.

That's true. At the end of the day, however, the research should be a wake-up call for all of us. We must pay attention to what girls are saying because they are our future. It's a competitive imperative as well as a moral one.

What's more, we at Girl Scouts aren't afraid of a challenge. Historically, about 10% of all American girls participate in Girl Scouting. However, 69% of the women serving in the Senate and 65% of the women in the House of Representatives are former Girl Scouts, as are close to 80% of all women business executives and business owners. So maybe the answer is to have all girls be Girl Scouts.

You mentioned you also surveyed boys. I am curious what they had to say about all this.

Well, there's some good news here. A majority of boys and girls believe they are equally capable of being leaders. A few generations ago, that would probably not have been the case. In fact, some 56% of boys said that "in our society, it is more difficult to become a leader for a woman than a man." So it's clear that even at some of the youngest ages, boys understand women face a harder road.

In general, boys had similar concerns about leadership: They want a model of altruistic leadership. But at the end of the day, the study shows making money, being their own boss, and having power is more important to them.

Given what you know about the next generation of women, are you sanguine about the prospects for women in leadership positions in Corporate America and elsewhere? Is that glass ceiling still going to be there tomorrow and the day after?

I am excited about the future. No one could argue that we haven't seen substantial changes in society when it comes to opportunities for women in a range of fields. Are we where we want to be? No. But girls today will have many opportunities for leadership in their lifetimes, and we as an organization are committed to getting them ready for those opportunities. We need those girls; they are 51% of the population. Think of all that talent.

We live in a complex society with a complex, diverse workforce, and we have a lot of very real problems to solve. Managing that complexity and diversity and solving those problems is going to require collaborative, inclusive leadership that focuses on the common good rather than the needs of the leader or chief executive. The good news is girls appear to understand this in very real and intuitive ways.

If you would like to learn more about what the Girl Scouts are up to, please contact Elizabeth King at EKing@CRT-tanaka.com. Any reflections or comments on the changing dynamics of leadership for girls—or boys—would be greatly appreciated!

Marshall Goldsmith is the New York Times best-selling author of What Got You Here Won't Get You There—a Wall Street Journal No. 1 business book and Harold Longman Award winner for Business Book of the Year. His newest book, Succession: Are You Ready?, has just been published by the Harvard Business Press. He can be reached at Marshall@MarshallGoldsmith.com, and he provides his articles and videos online at MarshallGoldsmithLibrary.com.

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