Research & Thought Leadership

Are women more effective leaders?

Colin Williams and Sharon Olivier

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The myth of men being the best natural leaders – the old alpha male story – has long been blown asunder. In both the private and public sectors, evidence abounds - see some notable examples here - of successful women outperforming their male colleagues.  News from the recent global COVID pandemic appears to reinforce this. Several countries led by women responded better to the emerging crisis than those led by men. Any discussion of political leaders is sensitive because people have opinions that go way beyond gender as a measure of approval but New Zealand, Germany, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Taiwan, all seem to have handled their response to the pandemic better than many other countries[i]. The common denominator is they all have women leaders.

We would like to share how our research might help explain why women are often more effective leaders. In our book ‘Agile Leadership for Turbulent Times’[ii] we explore three forms of ‘leadership intelligence’: ego intelligence, eco intelligence, and intuitive intelligence. We talk of intelligences because these are ways of seeing, sense-making, and deciding. All of the intelligences are helpful, the key to success is integrating them and using the best blend at any point in time. Overdoing any one of them is unhelpful.

Ego intelligence is perhaps the best known and easiest of the three to identify. People demonstrating it are often seen as ‘transformational heroes.’ They are clear, decisive, persuasive, action-oriented, and often very good debaters. Much lauded qualities in a leader and also, arguably, primarily male characteristics. Unfortunately, when these strengths are overused (and there is plenty of evidence of that at the moment) these leaders become egotistical, unable to accept criticism or disagreement, and highly divisive figures who may finish up surrounded by sycophants. These too are arguably, primarily male characteristics.

Intuitive intelligence is much less well understood. We describe it as being like a black cat in a dark room: it can be heard meowing but cannot be seen. It is about ‘listening to your gut.’ It is the art of ‘joining up the dots’ from limited data. It is seeing the power of synchronicity: the ability to spot connections between apparently unconnected events.  Leaders using this intelligence ‘sense into’ a situation which results in a strong feeling that is not always rational or analytical. So, we define Intuitive intelligence as ‘knowing something from a non-rational place’. For centuries people have talked about ‘a woman’s intuition’ or ‘female intuition’. Some men are suspicious of it and many women downplay it in order to compete in a masculine world. It is, we believe, one of the reasons women make great leaders. Not that nature has gifted them some unique attribute but that they are more able and willing to tap into it, trust it and use it.

Eco intelligence is in some ways simply the ability to integrate. Using eco intelligence, leaders see organizations as complex living systems with multiple components interacting in ways that are not driven by cause and effect. They recognize that people are not robots like cogs in a machine-human resources! Of course, all leaders claim not to see people like robots or organizations as machines but evidence in the form of all sorts of different management systems would suggest otherwise. Eco intelligent leaders work across boundaries, they build consensus, they coach, facilitate, support, challenge, encourage, involve, and listen. They are open to different ideas and look to take the best from all, before integrating and building an even better idea.  It is the epitome of 2+2=5.  Again, many of these characteristics are more naturally feminine or female than masculine or male. We are not suggesting that men cannot or do not support, encourage, listen, etc. but it is a less traditionally valued male form of leadership.

All leaders are appreciated for being ‘strong’. People do not value weak leaders. It is the definition of strength that changes. In a man, strength is often seen as the ability to be independent, in a woman it is more the ability to cooperate and integrate. This is perhaps best illustrated in Angela Merkel’s comment last year about Brexit.  She regretted the U.K. leaving the European Union and said she simply could not understand how the U.K. was stronger alone than in the Union. For her, being strong involved interacting with her allies and partners, with mutual responsibilities. ‘Taking back control’ was an illusion.

But is this discussion as simple as the question, “are women or men better leaders?”.  Perhaps the solution to the diversity challenge lies in having a good blend of male qualities (ego - independence, focus, drive) and female qualities (eco & intuitive - integrative, cooperative, empathetic, attuned) in any team, regardless of whether these qualities lie within men or women. It is not simply about having equal numbers of men and women however the imbalance of characteristics in positions of influence at present highlights a need for more women at senior levels in order to bring more balance.

Colin Williams and Sharon Olivier are members of faculty at Hult International Business School and authors of ‘Agile Leadership for Turbulent Times’ published by Routledge.

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