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Wanted: Leaders not Tyrants — What Women Want in Men and How They Can More Likely Get It

Women are attracted to confident men.

Indeed, confidence is the most commonly listed qualities report wanting in men.  Moreover, even the physical characteristics of an attractive man are ones which suggest manly confidence, strength, and an ability to lead.

On some level, this sign of confidence also reflects an ability to protect, provide, and lead a family.

But there are delicate balances at stake.   Leaders are valued, but beware of tyrants.

Men, or women, who “naturally” appear to be strong leaders may in fact be tyrants–pressing their wills forward with a sharp focus that looks like leadership but is really self-focused, closed-minded narcissism.   Dictators may be perceived as leaders, and do serve the role of leaders in many governments, businesses, associations, homes, and relationships . . . but once they are discovered to be dictators, they are usually not the men women wish they had married.

by Elvert Barnes, Creative Commons

While husbands should certainly avoid being tyrants, it still remains true that most wives want a husband who is a leader.  More specifically, they desire a husband who is closer to the ideal of a servant-leader, one who seeks the good of everyone and is often willing to forego his own desires and preferences because of that desire to “lead by example,” including by examples of generosity.

The irony is that a good servant-leader, especially early in relationships, may not be perceived as a “leader” precisely because he is seeking to understand his partners needs and desires before making decisions.

The dilemma this creates for confident women is well described in a blog post by Evan Marc Katz:  If You Want to Date A Confident Leader, You Have to Let Him Lead.

While Katz fails to offer much in the way of solutions (like I hope to do), it is still a very interesting read.  Go ahead.  Go read it.  Then come back here.

One of the striking points in the Katz article is that many confident, successful women are tired of making decisions all day and would welcome their date simply choosing what restaurant to go to without having one more consultation.   This sets them up for being more intrigued and impressed by men who are really prone to be dictator types w

ho know what they want for themselves and figure its up to women to adjust if they want to be part of “his life.”   The problem is that this form of self-centeredness may appear to be confidence, which is attractive, in the dating stage but is later seen as, well . . . self-centeredness after marriage, which is not attractive.

Katz also describes how this desire for signs of confidence and leadership skills leads many women to dismissing the “nice guys” who they perceive as “lacking leadership skills” — as evidenced, for example, in their efforts to discuss date plans.  As Katz rightly points out, this criticism often fails to recognize women’s own failures in this regard.

Our modern culture trains men to consult with women, not lead them.   Men are told that women are equals and that they should collaborate on decisions.  So a woman’s “secret” desire for men to just take the lead on this or that decision is not one which men generally anticipate.  Indeed, it is likely that most men have had the riot act read to them for taking the initiative with a woman who subsequently complained.

Have you ever tried to herd cats?   For many modern men, that task seems as hopeless as trying to lead modern women.  Damned if the try; damned if they don’t.

As Katz does point out, if women want a husband who is capable of leading they need to show an ability and willingness to follow.

At the same time,  women also need men who are worth following


Historical Context Shapes Today’s Attitudes

The idea of the man being the leader in male-female relationships has ancient roots and all kids of explanations offered by experts in biology, evolution, psychology, sociology, economics, politics, theology, dating advise and more.  

I’m not going to try to examine all of these explanations nor to discern which of these many ways of viewing this subject are most true or most misleading.

Instead, I want to move onto the second and related fact.   In every culture, even when the male role as leader is most deeply ingrained in the social expectations, the law, and religion, every village and extended family was busy discussing the “exceptions” of weak husbands and/or domineering wives.

In short, even in cultures that embraced “traditional” marriage roles, reality has often differed from expectations.

Worse, at the other extreme, in every culture many men have been tyrants who have oppressed and abused their wives and children.   In this abusive category, we should also acknowledge that dominant, abusive wives are also a fact of history in every culture.

The bottom line is that any form of submission to another’s “leadership” involves risks.  The reality is that abusive relationships are common.  Indeed, as described in article “We Are All Guilty. But Not Equally Guilty,” everyone, sooner or later, both experiences and commits at least some “minor” forms of abuse in their relationships.   These direct or vicarious experiences (viewing battles between parents, for example) create very legitimate fears about being mistreated in our relationships.

So having fears about being hurt and exploited in relationships is very rational.  To not have such fears would be the problem.

So the the fact that modern feminism arose, at least in part, on a platform decrying who cultural and religious norms advocating for “good, submissive wives” had led to so many women being dominated, exploited and abused.   As a result, in our modern Western culture there is now an aversion to the idea of wives being “submissive” or “obedient” to their husbands.   In place of the roles of husband as leader and wife as follower paradigm, modern marriages are portrayed as “partnerships of equals” engaged in “mutual decision making.”

That’s all well and good.   Such equality is unquestionably wonderful on many levels.

But do you see how this new emphasis on mutuality makes it more difficult, and risky, for men to take the initiative and act like leaders?

Just as importantly, do you also see how this new “obligation” to discuss and agree upon everything–even about which restaurant to go to–is time consuming and exhausting.    

In my view, this ideal of always seeking collaborative decision making (a logical, in the head construct) is actually in conflict with the heart’s desire (of both women and men) for simplicity, clarity, and security.  

Discussing nearly every decision becomes “simple” only when one or the other learns to quickly agree.  

Decision making, in the new paradigm, only has clarity when the couple, by conscious design or natural default, begins to assign decision making powers in this realm or that to one spouse or the other. 

Finally, this new system, offers security only when there is confidence that the decision the authorized spouse makes will not be subject to second-guessing, criticism, and recriminations by the other spouse who, with 20-20 hindsight, might suddenly declare that he or she would have vetoed the decision if he or she had only been more fully informed and properly consulted.

In short, replacing the cultural assignment of leadership/authority with the ideal of “collaborative decision making” introduces complexity, inefficiencies, and perhaps most importantly, insecurity.

Even when a couple has agreed on spheres of leadership, “you handle this and I’ll handle that,” where does one draw the line regarding exceptions which, in hindsight, should have triggered further discussion?  

On top of this, many relationships may be plagued by the opposite problem.  Not a failure to spot the big issues which require further discussion, but rather the fear that even minor decisions may turn into big issues (after the fact).   This is especially problematic if one spouse has had a troubled history of second guessing, even in other relationships or from parents.  In such cases, the spouse who is adverse to conflict may prefer the annoyance of wasting time to consult on marginal matters simply for the security of knowing his or her spouse agreed to “own” the decision.


Looking for Security in Leadership

I have previously written about how both women and men are seeking security in their relationships.

In this regard, both women and men are also looking for security in regard to decision making.

First, they hope for good decisions to be made.  Secondly, they hope that the decisions they make will be supported by their spouse, especially if results turn out badly.  (No one enjoys criticisms from hindsight.)  Bad decisions are inevitable.  Indeed, bad decisions are often the ones we most learn from.  We’ve all made them, and we’ve all survived and grown because of our mistakes.  At the same time, what we hope for in these circumstances is support and understanding from our loved ones . . . not loss love, disrespect, criticism, and rejection. 

Now, let’s lay these common denominators on traditional male/female roles.

In their heart, women are seeking men who are good leaders and will make good decisions and will spare them some of the nitty-gritty decisions necessary to have a stable, happy home.  A strong, take charge guy who always gets it right is a delight . . . especially if he remembers to keep his wife at the center of his heart.  Right?

But in their heads, women are afraid to let men take the lead because (a) it takes time to develop enough trust in a man to follow his lead (and rightly so), and (b) even if she does grow to trust him, modern culture has taught her to resist the antiquated and demeaning idea of being a “submissive wife.”   She is a modern woman, strong and competent.  She is empowered, and has a duty to preserve that empowerment, to “protect her turf” by reminding her partner that he’s not her boss . . . he’s a partner.

Now, look at the man’s perspective.  In his heart, every man wants to be a respected leader.   From his earliest years of training, in the home, in sports, and in work environments, he has been drilled to first be a good follower of those with authority over him.  At the same time, he has been encouraged to aspire to increasing roles of leadership.  At the very least, he has always aspired to be the respected leader of his own family.

In his heart, every man wants to be a leader and admired for his leadership.  While he may not consciously think it, every man is looking for a partner-follower who will help him become the good leader he wants to be by trusting him, following him, and sticking with him through thick and thin . . . and especially despite the thin.

These are the desires of his heart.  But in his head, every man knows that he has and will continue to make mistakes.  That’s a fact.  He expects it, accepts it, and trusts that he will grow from his mistakes but can still persevere.  This knowledge that he will make mistakes is discomforting in any culture and age.  But it is especially discomforting a culture where a wife is no longer socially expected or religiously sworn to support him and his decisions, for better or worse.

A man who lives in fear that his wife will elevated to be both his judge and jury will either hesitate to lead or refuse to lead.

While it may be true that hell may have no fury like a woman scorned . . . a nagging, belittling, and scornful wife would fit right in.

The bottom line is that modern men do not feel assured of their wive’s support.  So what are modern men to do?  

Sure, there are obtuse, narcissistic alpha males who demonstrate “leadership” by pursuing their own agenda regardless of their wives needs and concerns . . . and because of this tendency these men will generally end up going through multiple wives in the process.

But there are far more truly good guys, both thoughtful and responsible, who are quite capable of being great leaders who never get a chance to develop into the good husband-leaders their wives really want precisely because they have never experienced their wives as good followers.

In short, wives want the security of being able to follow a good leader.  At the same time, in order to be a good leader, husbands need the security of having a good follower . . . one who persists in following, admiring, and loving, even when inevitable mistakes are made.


Advice from a Feminist and “Surrendered Wife”

The dilemma this poses to modern women is astutely described by Jean Kerr: “The only thing worse than a man you can’t control is a man you can.”

So is there any way out of this dilemma?

Yes, according to a modern self-proclaimed feminist, Laura Doyle, and best selling author of “The Surrendered Wife.”

But before looking at her advice, I must pause to underscore that it applies not to all relationships–only to married relationships.

Why?  Because Doyle is a true feminist who would scorn the idea that every woman must be submissive to every man.  In the work place and every social context outside the home, she insists, women should have equal opportunities to lead and are equally capable to lead.

Moreover, in unmarried, uncommitted relationships a woman is still discerning whether or not there is enough trust to commit to following her partner’s lead.  

But once that trust is gained and promised within a married relationship, Doyle argues, even a modern wife fill find more joy, fulfillment, freedom from stress, and true intimacy if she commits herself to the project of being a “surrendered wife”–one who expects and and accepts her husband’s leadership and thereby helps him to become the best leader, husband and lover that he is capable of being.The Surrendered Wife : A Practical Guide to Finding Intimacy, Passion, and Peace with Your Man

No man is made a good husband or leader through nagging or belittling.   But while there is no guarantee of success,  a wife can help her husband become the best leader he can be by the simple expedient of expecting and encouraging him to take the lead.

How?  Very simply by rebuffing his efforts to consult on decisions with a very simple statement such as “I trust your decision.”

While The Surrendered Wife and other resources Doyle has developed offer many other important ideas, suggestions and issues which should be considered, this one tip is, in my opinion, the most important.  Simply tell him you trust his decision and refuse his efforts to draw you into it.

Remember, he’s grown up in a culture that tells him that he is not automatically trusted to be a leader in your marriage.   If you want him to lead, you need to not only tell him so but patiently wait on him to do so.

While it sounds simple, this is actually hard for both husbands and wives.  At first, he will be reluctant because he will fear condemnation if you don’t like his decisions.  For your part, it will be hard to give up grabbing the reins, second guessing, or offering criticisms.   But I’ll let you read her advice on these and and other matters yourself.

The critical point to the subject matter here is to simply reflect on how instructive, freeing and empowering the statement “I trust your decision” is to modern husband.

Finally!  He’s supported in making a decision, and not even being told what that decision should be!  How novel is that?!

Surely, as Doyle will describe, there are many situations in which a wife should give her best counsel and advice.  And even more surely, it is only a very foolish husband who will not seek his wife’s advise, especially in regard to the most important matters.

But a conscious decision to voice trust in his decision making skills with a promise to defer to his decisions to support him and the rightness of his efforts even if the decision is later regretted, is not only very empowering . . . it is essential in regard to helping him practice and grow in the role of being a leader.

(By the way, if you are wondering how role conflicts and confusion are impacting your relationship, Doyle has an interesting relationship quiz here.  It’s mostly a funnel for issues addressed by her materials, but it’s also an interesting checklist that you may appreciate.)

Leadership as a Calling and Assignment

As you may have noticed, most men start out as boys.

As boys, men are taught to obey and follow.  They are taught that following contributes to group success.

At the same time, hopefully, young boys are also taught to aspire to be leaders, like the men they look up to.  They also learn that most leadership positions begin with being assigned, designated and recognized as a leader.   Simply declaring, “I’m the leader” will more often lead to scorn than respect.

Another important point: without respect for authority, a designated leader is powerless and therefore no longer truly a leader.

Even widely recognized leaders, such as General Patton, rely entirely on their subordinates being prepared and willing to follow their lead.  Good leadership can reinforce this willingness.  Poor leadership can shake this willingness.  But no willingness puts an end to leadership.

Put another way, a leader of 100 can still lead if only only a few are disrespectful.   But the leader of only one follower has no authority,  no respect, and no confidence to act as a leader if his one “follower” refuses to follow, either insisting on discussion and collaboration or even usurping the initiative in undertaking various actions.

This is exactly why so many husbands fail to act like leaders . . . precisely because they perceive that their wives are unwilling to trust and follow them.  And can we blame them for this failure when in fact they are correct in both their perception of their wives and their lack of support for their leadership?

Even if a wife is willing to trust and follow her husbands leadership, in today’s culture the role of husbands as the leader of a household is thought to be quaint, if not barbaric.

This is why Doyle’s advice to wives is so critical.  Unless you inform your husband that he is both expected to and free to act as the leader of your marriage and family, he will likely assume that any efforts to act like a leader will be interpreted as insulting and domineering.

As stated before, most men have experience as both followers and leaders.  Generally, more often in the follower role and, when in a leadership role, usually as a designated and recognized leader over a group or project.   As a good follower, he is conscious of the dangers of usurping another authority.  As a good leader, he is conscious of the importance of being recognized as the leader, at least in part because battles over leadership roles generally damage group cohesion or project success.

Bringing these same perceptions of leadership into a modern marriage, most men lack clarity about where the leadership will rest in regard to any group of tasks or realms of decision-making.  Everything is subject to negotiation.  And with changing circumstances, previous understandings may be subject to re-negotiation.

While this can often work out fine, even when it does modern men feel, rightly, that any leadership they exercise in their marriage is always subject to withdrawal and rebuke.  This is inevitably disempowering.

Men who do not feel designated and accepted as leaders will hesitate to lead, especially if their leadership efforts result in any backlash or criticism.

The result is nearly inevitable.   Husbands who do not feel empowered to lead end up as either weak, vacillating leaders or refuse to lead at all.   This “power vacuum” compels wives to fill that leadership gap, which further exacerbates the husband’s feelings of disempowerment, which further feeds her need to take charge because of his “failures.”

Approached from another perspective, everyone wants to be admired.  Men, especially, want to be admired as leaders.

Sadly, countless men who are admired for their leadership skills at work, play, or other venues outside the home, feel no admiration for leadership from their wives.   Instead, they feel either (1) drawn into in constant battles, or (2) drained by constant negotiations, or (3)  disengaged as “surrendered husbands” who simply don’t have the energy to negotiate yet one more family issues.


Will You Turn Him Into a Leader or a Wimp?

No husband can be a confident leader if he doubts the commitment of his wife to follow and support him.

I know this is a hard message to embrace . . . especially for strong willed, competent women who are good leaders in their own right.   It is especially hard for women who see what should be done, are anxious to get it done, and therefore grow increasingly frustrated by the their husbands’ “failure” to see what “must be done” as quickly and clearly as they do.

But there is always a price exacted when wives take the lead.  

Your leadership will always be at the expense of his leadership.

If your leadership skills are more developed, and therefore relied upon in the marriage, his leadership skills will not develop and may even regress.

Even if a husband desires to cultivate his leadership skills, if his wife refuses to follow efforts to lead his only options are to enter into debates, arguments and conflict to assert that his opinion and lead is best for them, or to shift into follower mode and follow her lead.

There are only three options:

  1. A wife good at following will help her husband become the best leader he can be;
  2. A wife who insists on collaboration and equality in all decisions will inevitably drain the energy her husband is willing to invest in leading resulting in either capitulation to her leadership, constant struggles, or both;
  3. A wife who is more than her husbands equal in decision making will have husband who is “wimp.”

Wives have immense power in shaping husbands who are either leaders, negotiators, combatants or wimps.

While to the modern mind, having a husband who is a “negotiator” may seem most ideal, in reality this is an exhausting way to live.  A good, modern husband who refrain from taking the lead in preference for mutual decision making live with must always make time for consultations and discussions leading to consensus agreement.  Adverse to making unilateral decisions, he becomes increasingly uncertain about acting without consultation.  Just to save time, he is likely to start deferring to his wife’s judgments . . . after all, he is used to following at work, why not follow the decisions of the wife he loves.

This is precisely the way in which good men, who would be good servant-leaders if they were confident that their wives would follow, slip away from taking any leadership initiative.  If their wives start acting like heads of the household, it’s often easier to let their wives take the lead.

Ironically, many of these same wives resent being “forced” to take the lead.  This is the quandary in which Doyle found herself.  It was only after she realized that her leadership skills were blocking his leadership skills that she found the key to empowering, developing, and receiving the benefits of her husbands leadership skills.

It’s not immediate.  It’s not without frustrations, but a determined effort to be a good follower is the best thing a woman can do to help her husband be a good leader.

Indeed, Doyle approach in this regard is simply a spin on the long standing history of military lore, typified in many movies, wherein the inexperienced lieutenant, fresh from officer’s training, hesitates about the best tactical decision in the midst of gun fire.  The lieutenant turns to the grizzled, experienced sergeant and asks him to make the decision based on his superior knowledge.  But while the sergeant gives his best assessment of the options, he refuses to let the lieutenant dodge a military decision.  “It’s your decision,” the sergeant insists, “You have to make it.”

When the sergeant refuses to let a superior officer evade his duties of leadership, he is really insisting on maintaining a structure of authority without which the entire structure of leadership and responsibility falls apart.  By being a good follower (who is also a leader in other spheres), the sergeant is teaching the leader to lead by showing confidence in his leadership…even when things don’t work out perfectly well.

In the same vein, any woman who complains about lack of male leadership must ask herself if she is part of the problem, not only if she is seizing leadership but also if she is failing to simply reassure her man that she expects and trusts his leadership.

At the same time, it is true that men should always be reminded that good leadership is rooted in a sense of responsibility toward those being led.  They are called to be servant leaders, not tyrants. 

Conversely, the fear of tyrannical husbands, legitimate as it may be, must be tempered by a fear of eviscerated husbands who have been stripped of all motivation and authority.

No, there is no guarantee that your husband will be more loving if you stop trying to control him.  

But, if you continue to try to control him, I can guarantee you he won’t be more loving!  – The Peaceful Wife 


The idea of having a leader who knows where we are going and how we will get there is an attractive idea, especially when we are uncertain ourselves where we are going and how we will get there.  It’s true in politics, in the home, and in relationships.

But even General Patton could not be a great leader without soldiers willing to follow.   A true leader wants to move forward, not to be constantly stopping to explain why and where he is going, much less to explain “more than necessary” when the troops’ confidence begins to waiver.

I’m not saying no explanation should be given.  Indeed, a good leader will explain and inspire.  But at some point, if the followers resist, it is frustrating, exhausting, discouraging, and can lead to an abandonment of the leadership role.

This is why many men, perhaps the vast majority, who are quite capable and perhaps willing to be great leaders are often fail to develop the leadership skills women desire.   It is precisely because they are “nice guys” who are not prone to being tyrants that they are equally comfortable being follower or servant-leaders.   Unfortunately, it is exactly this flexibility which women perceive, according to Evan Katz, as a lack of leadership ability, when in fact, these very same men may be looking for a woman who is willing to follow their lead.

In contrast, as Katz points out, many if not most of the alpha males are so driven by self aggrandizement and/or career goals that family and relationships truly do play just a supporting role in their priorities.   These “alpha males” may at first appear attractive to women because their confidence in pushing forward decisively in relationship decisions is because, in the end, he has tyrannical tendencies and is so self-absorbed that he will just replace her if she doesn’t fill his needs.  

So, closing the circle, women who are dating would be well advised to give the “nice guys” a chance to show their leadership by being very counter cultural and simply telling the nice guy, again and again, “I trust your decision.”

In the final analysis, trust is essential to both love and leadership.  And couples will have neither of the latter two without investments in the trust department.


 See also Marriage is Supposed to be a Struggle?! for some insights on why the effort to follow and lead may produce extra benefits in your life.

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