It is already apparent that the female leaders of many nations are managing the coronavirus crisis with clarity and aplomb. Very few nations with female leaders have done badly – unlike many of their male counterparts. How can this be, when men have so much more experience of leading, and so have had so much more time – centuries, really – to hone their leadership skills? Why are so many male national leaders, including the so-called leader of the free world, coming up so very short?
Let’s look back a little. Earlier this year (in what feels like prehistory now) we heard the good news that the number of women on the boards of FTSE 100 companies had more than doubled in a decade to around thirty percent. But why is this good news, beyond the important question of addressing gender imbalance? Do women bring different qualities to leadership than men?
Let’s look at as near as we can get to facts: the opinions of a hundred male and female CEOs we have interviewed across different sectors.
Male leaders often think that female leaders are better because they have certain qualities that men don’t have. They tell the truth in ways that don’t offend. They are better able to balance a whole variety of factors more quickly and more holistically, whereas men usually go for ‘the angle’. Women are more adroit at looking across different contexts. They are more empathetic without expressing undue feeling, notably bad temper. They can be brutally decisive, and waste no time. Therefore the ideal leadership team has to be a balance of men and women because of the things that differentiate male and female leaders.
Generally speaking, CEOs think that:
Women who get to the top will have worked harder and better to get there.
Women experience a lot more hassle – sexism, gender-bias, juggling work and home.
Women are more natural empathisers and have greater emotional intelligence.
Women are more intuitive and inclusive.
Women bring different ways of thinking.
Women are more focused on the right things.
Women are more resourceful at maintaining complex networks of relationships and are better natural communicators.
Women are more prepared to be humble.
Women spend more time bottoming the most difficult issues.
Back to COVID-19. We can see all of the qualities I have described at work in successful leadership of their countries by women.
- In the directness and expertise of Angela Merkel, whose clear, calm explanations of the scientific basis of the government’s lockdown strategy have been shared tens of thousands of times
- In the tiny, resource-constrained island of Sint Maarten prime minister Silveria Jacobs spelled out ‘Simply.Stop.Moving. …if you don’t have bread in your house, eat crackers.’
- In New Zealand Jacinda Ardern has communicated daily from her couch, insisting on saving lives and putting kindness first and sharing responsibility, urging Kiwis to look after neighbours, the vulnerable and the greater good.
- In Norway, Erna Solberg immediately let the scientists make the big medical decisions without a shred of political interference.
- In Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen activated the country’s epidemic control centre in early January and immediately rolled out mass public hygiene measures such as disinfecting public areas and buildings.
- And in Denmark Mette Frederiksen, having acted firmly to close everything down in early March, posted a clip of herself doing the dishes whilst singing along to some pretty awful rock music.
All of these female leaders thought and acted fast. They went in early and hard for quarantine and lockdown, whilst communicating what they were doing and why they were doing it with drive, compassion and even a bit of fun.
We should not be surprised by this. It is the natural consequence of the qualities most associated with female leadership, especially listening, bottoming questions in depth, communicating naturally and widely, working inclusively and empathetically and above all having the courage to make big, correct decisions early on in ambiguous circumstances.
But, I hear you protest: don’t the best men have these qualities too? Of course they do. But remember that a time-honoured leadership trait of male leaders is the land-grab. Men know an opportunity to grow their leadership capability when they see it, and having (or working extremely hard to learn) ‘female’ qualities is clearly one of them, be it by nature or by nurture.
We must hope that, as we emerge from our respective lockdowns and our economies start to move that the future of leadership will belong to women, and to men who think and act more like the exemplary female leaders who are leading so successfully in our shared moment of pandemic crisis.