Women And The 21st Century Art Of Leadership. It’s Not (Just) About Us

If you’ve been following The Woman Effect blog post series you might reasonably believe that I think that women are great leaders (I do!), and if we just put women in charge of the world all our problems would be solved (I don’t!). In fact, The Woman Effect isn’t just about the women at all; it’s about how women can affect organizational and corporate cultures.

In creating The Woman Effect Research Index and trying to understand why women in leadership are having such a positive impact on business, I’ve come to believe that proactively bringing women into a significant percentage of the leadership roles in organizations is like dropping some sunny yellow into a deep blue sea to get gorgeous green; women in partnership with men help create a new culture of leadership that brings out the best of both men and women and keeps the less useful tendencies of both genders in check. The beneficiary? The organization and all the people it serves!

Call it 21st Century Gender-Balanced Leadership, and call it effective.

 Women Are Good Leaders

There is no question that women have many leadership strengths that are useful in today’s economy, and while this is good reason to try to get more women on boards, it’s also a reason to welcome women into all leadership levels. Women are really good at:

These characteristics (along with our general willingness to get stuff done, manage our egos, drive for excellence) lead us to be trusted and liked as managers and leaders. Very recent research lists out 15 independent leadership competencies that women excel over men in and which actually grow stronger the more senior a woman is in her position.

Thus the fact that women and men alike still tend to view the generic archetype of “leader” in a male context, placing women in a double bind sometimes, is a cultural artifact, not an absolute reality.

 Men Are Good Leaders Too

 The primary archetype of “leader” — who is male — has it’s strengths too. Men can be decisive, confident, analytical and bold in ways that absolutely benefit organizations of all types. For every abuse of power that tarnishes this leader archetype, there are many more male-run businesses that are adding real value and innovation to the economy.

As Leslie Williams said in an earlier post, this discussion isn’t about women OR men; it’s about women AND men. It’s not about which leadership styles are better, it’s about how the strengths of both can be leveraged.

 Gender-balanced Leadership Helps Good Leaders Lead Better

To some extent, the idea that women and men acting in partnership would make for a more productive business culture should be self evident – after all the female/male partnership model has been at the heart of civilization since it’s inception. Modern life, especially in economic organizations, is by definition more integrated than perhaps any other time in history, so it makes sense to reevaluate the cultural roles we play in this partnership. Couples are managing this integration by allowing guys to be the home-keepers in greater numbers by necessity; businesses would be wise to do it by design.

Looking into the research for the “whys” of The Woman Effect I haven’t been able to find a definitive study that explains exactly why gender-balanced leadership teams – in which women comprise 30% or more – perform measurably better. However, I’ve picked up a number of anecdotes and observations by the researchers and those I’ve interviewed that provide valuable insight into this phenomenon. In short, when there is more gender-balanced representation in leadership, both sexes act differently. As one researcher put it in trying to explain why women helped raise the intelligence quotient of groups, “when women are in the room, the men act differently.” Another interviewee noted that her all male client team said they enjoyed working with her because they were more polite to each other (less trash talk and verbal chest bumping), they listened to each other more and the dialog was richer and more productive. From my own experience, even though being in all-women planning teams and task forces can be more fun sometimes, we often don’t surface all the ideas that come out when the guys join us.

Much is made of the differences between female and male brains but instead of using psychology and neurology tests to prove that women are as smart as men (yes, one company really gave all their women IQ tests to prove this to the boss!) or that both genders have advantages over the other, I believe the value of this research is in highlighting the most important factor in leadership team effectiveness: diversity of thought. Some researchers have looked for leadership strength in diversity, including ethnic and demographic variations, but in several studies the most predictable indicator of diverse groups improved output is the diversity of the ways people think and the variety of skills and experience they bring to the table because of it.

I believe that when we pursue this line of inquiry more deeply we’ll find more refined gradations in the types of diversity that matter, which cut across gender lines – such as different kinds of creativity, analytical proclivities and all forms off intelligence. However, if you’re busy running a business and don’t have time or money to indulge the psychologists in their desire to do detailed psychological profiles of every employee, I’ll give you a low-cost way to increase your organization’s diversity of thinking and leading styles: just to make sure capable women make it into 30% or more of your leadership positions.

For those strong, forward thinking leaders who know how to build and change corporate culture, I just saved you a ton in consulting bills to help you put booster rockets under your company’s growth and sustainability plans. For those who need help doing this, contact me. You’ve got a change management challenge and I have a solution.

(Read the whole series: What is Woman Effect?, why1, why 2, why 3, why4)

Photo Credit: Vickie Szumigala

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