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Gender and Leadership - One Man’s Perspective

Originally published May 1, 2020

There are mountains of research on the importance of diversity in building high-performing organizations. There is at least as much insight on the nature of leadership, including that there is no one “right” leadership style. The most effective leaders are true to themselves, their strengths, and their values. At the same time, different situations call for different leadership styles. Are these conflicting ideas? Perhaps, but if the current situation shows us anything, it’s this - the women are getting it right.

Just my unscientific opinion, but female political leaders are performing far better than their male counterparts. Not to say that all the women are getting it right or that all the men are getting it wrong, but consider these facts:

  • 72% of Germans approve of how Angela Merkel’s government is handling this pandemic (DW News).  
  • 88% of New Zealanders trusted the government (led by 39-year-old Jacinda Arden) to make the right decisions about addressing COVID-19 (The Atlantic).  
  • Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen’s approval rating is 68.5%, up from a nadir of 24.3% just over a year ago (Nikei Asian Review).

If you want to see what effective leadership in a crisis looks like, watch this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-vT8e7lkjl8

All of these women moved decisively AND effectively; the results speak for themselves. Taiwan has had just 6 known coronavirus deaths in a country of 35 million. Germany has seen a far lower coronavirus death rate than most other developed countries and seems to be well past peak new infections. New Zealand has good reason to believe it has stopped community transitions. All three countries are starting to reopen their economies. (Business Insider, US News and World Report, The Economist).

These leaders are succeeding because they are very effectively drawing on what is traditionally considered to be “feminine” leadership traits: empathy, collaboration, and even humility - the humility to admit they don’t have all the answers and to draw on the people who do.

These traits are extraordinarily powerful in situations like today’s. Most of us have never faced anything remotely similar. We’re scared and unsure. The playbook, if it even exists, hasn’t been tested.

So what’s a man to do?

Well, for this one - a former naval officer, (American) football player, chainsaw-owner, and climber of the corporate ladder - it’s about realizing that gender-based leadership traits are cultural artifacts, not biological realities. There are many, many male leaders out there effectively using the same traits and having equally impressive results. Their willingness and ability to deploy so-called “feminine” leadership styles are literally saving lives.

So, my fellow XY’ers, there is no time like the present to embrace our feminine side. It’s in there somewhere, and your colleagues, friends, and family need it more than ever.

At the same time, we also need to be authentic to who we really are. If you’re feigning empathy because you think it’s the best way to achieve your personal goals, it’s going to fail. Spectacularly.

Intentions matter, so check your motives. But, if you try some uncomfortable new behaviors because you genuinely want to help your team through this challenge, you are far more likely to succeed. Opening ourselves up is never easy. So many of us were taught and have been successful because we always displayed strength and resolute confidence. There are situations when that works and is appropriate, but it’s not right now.

It’s time to admit that we really don't know everything and that we need help. Having trouble being empathetic? Ask someone that you trust and who is good at this to give you regular, candid feedback. Actually listen, take a breath as that defensiveness rises, and publicly commit to trying some of those suggestions on. Go into your next decision meeting with an open mind and keep it open until everyone has been able to fully share their thoughts. If everyone is agreeing with each other, figure out who should have been in the meeting and wasn’t and then go get their view.

All of this may be very uncomfortable, maybe even terrifying, but as Nelson Mandela said in the face of far more trying circumstances “courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.”

We are in an extraordinary time requiring extraordinary measures, particularly from our leaders. We are all called to do things we didn’t dream of a few months ago. And when we get fully past this (and we will), we will still face a world of accelerating complexity and change. The most successful leaders will continue to deploy these very same skills of empathy, collaboration, and even a bit of humility.

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