When it comes to female leadership, there are always two primary debates. The first is if women make great leaders at all, and the second is an inquest on whether they can make tough calls should they find themselves in a leadership position that demands such a stance and style of leadership. The answer to these two debates is a resounding yes. Women make great leaders and they can make tough calls whenever the need arises. From a psychological perspective, women face the stigma of being classified as the weaker sex in need of protection. In the early 14th to 18th centuries, women were perceived to lack the capacity to make decisions. Hence all decision making was left for the men, until the late 19th century when women began to step up, debunking these perspectives. Since then, there has been a comprehensive transformation in the number of women leaders that are in many circles and in different professional inclinations. Women have stepped up and are now advancing the cause of leadership, and this trend is not going to let up in the future. Women will continue to emerge as great and successful leaders of tomorrow. The question this article will attempt to answer is, “How do women lead?”
History is replete with women such as the Virgin Queen, Queen Elizabeth I, who ruled England and Ireland for forty-five years. Women have had to make tougher calls than men in order not to be perceived to be weak. Queen Elizabeth I, gave an iconic speech at Tilbury and was noted to have said that “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too. Though the sex to which I belong is considered weak, you will nevertheless find me a rock that bends to no wind.” History has produced several notable women leaders of strength and intelligence such as Catherine the Great, the Empress of Russia who expanded the geographic reins of Russia and westernized the culture and society via Education, Art, and Literature. Cleopatra VII, an intelligent Egyptian Queen who played her cards to retain leadership in an era when rulers were mainly men. Queen Victoria, the second longest reigning British monarch who advanced the United Kingdom and Ireland on many fronts. Indira Gandhi was the first female Prime Minister of India. Golda Meier, former diplomat and first female Prime Minister of Israel. Margaret Thatcher was the first female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. She was so assertive and strong as a leader that she was dubbed “The Iron Lady.” Benazir Bhutto became the first female prime minister of Pakistan. The list goes on and on of many past female leaders that exhibited great strength and intellectual prowess.
“The king may rule the kingdom, but it’s the queen who moves the board.” — D.M. Timney
Today, there a lot of notable women leaders in various fields of life endeavor. For instance, in the world of politics, we have the likes of Hillary Clinton, a former U.S. Senator, a former U.S. First Lady, a Women’s Rights Activist, and former Presidential aspirant who contested against the 45th President, Donald Trump. Angela Merkel is the first female Chancellor Germany and one of the architects of the European Union. Aung San Suu Kyi is currently the state counselor of Myanmar and winner of the 1991 Nobel Prize for Peace. Politician Nancy Pelosi became the first female Democratic leader of the House of Representatives and the first female speaker of the House. Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the world’s first elected black female president and Africa’s first elected female Head of State.
In the world of business, we have the likes of Mary Barra, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of General Motors; Indra Nooyi, former CEO, PepsiCo; Marillyn Hewson, current chairman, and former president and CEO, Lockheed Martin; Isabelle Kocher, CEO, Engie (i.e., a French multinational electric utility company); Emma Walmsley, CEO GlaxoSmithKline, Rosalind Brewer, Chief Operating Officer (COO), Starbucks, just to mention but a few. In the world of Finance, we have the likes of Abigail Johnson, CEO, Fidelity Investments; Ana Patricia Botín, Chair, Santander Group, Banco Santander (i.e., Spain’s largest bank); Adena Friedman, President-CEO, Nasdaq; Pollyanna Chu, Hong Kong’s most prominent woman entrepreneur, Co-Founder, Kingston Financial Group, just to mention but a few. As we can see, women are fast rising to the higher/highest echelons of leadership in many circles.
Furthermore, in the world of Technology, we have the likes of Sheryl Sandberg, COO, Facebook; Susan Wojcicki, CEO, YouTube; Ginni Rometty, executive Chairman, IBM; Safra Catz, CEO, Oracle; Ruth Porat, Chief Financial Officer (CFO), Alphabet (i.e., parent company of Google); Lucy Peng, Ant Financial Services, Alibaba Group; Amy Hood, CFO, Microsoft; Roshni Nadar Malhotra, CEO, HCL Technologies, just to mention but a few. In the world of Media/Entertainment, we have the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Entrepreneur, Personality, Philanthropist; Bonnie Hammer, Chair, Cable Entertainment Group, NBCUniversal, and Comcast; Stacey Snider, Chairman and CEO, Twenty-First Century Fox; Margarita Simonyan, Editor-In-Chief, Russian TV Network (i.e., RT); Dana Walden, Chair-CEO, Fox Television Group, Twenty-First Century Fox; Beyoncé Knowles, Musician; Arianna Huffington, was the co-founder and Editor-In-Chief of The Huffington Post, which is now owned by AOL (NB., She stepped down from her role at Huffington Post. She presently chairs her new startup project, Thrive Global, that is focused on health and wellness information).
We have not even looked at successful women in Philanthropy/NGO, Automotive, Manufacturing, Energy, etc. The list goes on ad infinitum. From the examples above, we can see that women have had to stand up and prove they have as much right to lead nations and corporations as men. Women are not substandard or inferior—they are golden rubrics of charm, wit, and intellect in the leadership halls of fame. So, it is evident that women have fought and won the leadership battle over the centuries. It is pertinent then to look at how women lead and the difference between their leadership style and approach from that of their male counterparts.
“The day will come when men will recognize woman as his peer, not only at the fireside, but in councils of the nation. Then, and not until then, will there be the perfect comradeship, the ideal union between the sexes that shall result in the highest development of the race.” — Susan B. Anthony
Why Do Women Lead Differently?
Women can forgive the ignorance of those who wonder why women lead differently from the men. For one, the will to carry and nurture another human being for nine months requires special grace and strength. Women are receivers and nurturers of life. They receive life, conceive life, birth life, and nourish life. This remains an incredible banner of honor to womenfolk. During the process of conception, the woman develops a special bond with the child in the womb. From the biological purview, they nurture the child starting from the womb. After the woman gives birth to the child, she continues to nurture the child to adulthood, making sure that the child is provided for during the process of growth. In the past, a lot of people have looked at the fact that women may fulfill maternal roles in a negative light when it comes to leadership. In my opinion, this is not a position of weakness, despite the pervasive perception. It is a position of strength. Many times, women must wear many multi-functional hats as the nurturers of the home and as well as the wife, the mother, the career woman, the entrepreneur, etc. Their ability to multifunction in these various roles also adds a feather to their caps as remarkable women and the way that they approach leadership.
On the other hand, most women are also governed to a considerable extent by emotions and sensations. There is a positive and negative viewpoint to these sensations. From the positive perspective, their emotional and sensational sides allow them to be more flexible, personable, and understanding. Women are known to have a higher level of emotional intelligence (EI) (i.e., they are more empathetic in nature—they psychologically identify with the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of others). Understanding how people feel allows women to be able to direct the emotions of others towards aligning with the collective needs of the group. Having a high EI is a positive and beneficial leadership asset that allows women to climb quickly to distinguished positions in organizations. From the contrary viewpoint, their flexible, agreeable, and understanding nature could be misconstrued as weakness, were in the actual sense, it is not. Men and women are not the same. Biologically speaking, there is no way a woman is comparable to a man. Women don’t even think the same way as men. They are wired entirely differently. Beyond the biological influence on leadership, significant sources point to the brain factor as one of the differentiators.
It’s a thing of the Brain
Researchers have discovered that the male and female brain operates in slightly different ways. This difference determines how each behave, and in the context of this article, how they lead as well. The brain has two hemispheres, which are the left and right. Research shows that men are more inclined to use the left side of the brain. They are usually more logical in their thinking process and how they handle issues. Women, on the other hand, generally adopt both hemispheres of the brain in their thinking process. The right region of the brain governs intuition more. Hence, they can draw from both hemispheres of the brain, which is advantageous when drawing conclusions. They can be both logical and intuitive at the same time. Most women tend to be more intuitive than men. They have that gut-feel-factor or sixth-sense factor in leadership. They might find it easier to see things and situations more clearly and on a grander scale than the men. Men, on the other hand, would want to act and make decisions based on facts and what they see at the moment and not on intuition. As leaders, women can see the bigger picture and perform based on what can potentially happen in the future, compared to men who would mostly be concerned about removing what’s currently in the way of success. This explains why heterogeneity in leadership is beneficial to the growth of organizations.
How Do Women Lead Differently?
First, women are transformational leaders. Women typically exhibit transformational leadership styles, compared to men who are more transactional in their approach to leadership. In transformational leadership, women attempt to transform the self-interest of their subordinates into the interest of the group.1 Women as leaders are more involved in activities rather than merely showing the way. Women are doers. They get involved and can be found helping subordinates to recognize their inner strength and the need for them to step up to the next level of their leadership growth. Women readily offer themselves up as role models, especially to those of the same gender who may feel intimidated by those of the opposite sex. The idea is to make everyone, both men and women, become better versions of themselves via the process of interactive leadership. Many organizations that are led by women also offer a more conducive work environment and sometimes, more remuneration for their employees. Work-Life balance is at the top of their priorities. So, how do women achieve this interactivity in organizations via this style of leadership?
Women achieve this process of transformation via interactive leadership. To elicit interaction, women make efforts to encourage participation and share power and information with their subordinates.1 Women in trying to evoke the intercommunication and inclusivity of others try to make them feel more part of the organization by creating a sociable, relaxed, and conversational atmosphere. In such ambiance, arising disparities are addressed, and cooperative, sustainable solutions are reached. The downside is that it can open doors to criticism and could easily be misconstrued as not having answers.1 Power and information sharing is a two-way traffic communication process flow. It creates a climate of trust between the leadership and the followers. This allows followers to become involved in the engineering of solutions to problems. Information sharing can just mean being candid about issues concerning work. The downside of power and information sharing is that it opens the portals of leadership vulnerability and being ultimately rejected or a sign of naivety.1 One of the upsides of sharing power and information and encouraging participation is that it makes others feel important. They also energize others by being enthusiastic. Their use of interactive leadership has deep roots in socialization, a skill that comes to them distinctly and akin to their nature.
Second, women are more empathetic leaders than men. Women have the motherly genes, although some women with opposing ideologies may beg to differ. However, a large percentage of women lean towards nurturing and empathy more than men. Especially in an era of alpha males, one might find women to be more empathetic towards their followers. This feeling of compassion can be traceable, for instance, to the past and current realities that have surrounded women. Women have been subject to exclusion from a whole lot of things for many centuries, because of their gender. However, now that the spaces are starting to open for female inclusion in leadership positions, women can generally approach matters from a “what if it were me” perspective. They listen. Women behave this way because they understand what it means to be shut out and excluded from certain things. Women understand prejudice and the feeling of being judged even before they have had the chance of proving themselves. Women understand the reality of being considered a minority in the leadership macrocosm. By this, most women leaders connect more emotionally to their subordinates by trying to foster a sense of inclusivity within the team. In some cases, a female leader can be considered a glorified teammate because there is barely any difference between both parties in the way they relate to each other.
“Every girl and every woman has the potential to make this world a better place, and that potential lies in the act of thinking higher thoughts and feeling deeper things. When women and girls, everywhere, begin to see themselves as more than inanimate objects; but as beautiful beings capable of deep feelings and high thoughts, this has the capacity to create change all around. The kind of change that is for the better.” — C. JoyBell C.
As indicated earlier, there are often debates as to who makes a better leader between men and women. Well, when we consider leadership styles, transformational styles, that embraces interactive leadership, tend to produce more advantageous results because of the inclusion that it offers subordinates and ultimately a harmonious work environment that ensues, all things being equal. However, it is worthy to note that there are also institutions that thrive better under a transactional leadership style. Are there any winners? Not necessarily. I would construe that the womenfolk and menfolk are both winners. The reason is being that the “best” leadership style is highly dependent on the organizational context that one finds himself or herself. However, we should have this at the back of our minds that the interactive leadership style is not solely synonymous to the womenfolk, there are also some men that operate under this leadership style. There are also women and men that merge transformational or interactive leadership with transactional, situational, charismatic, servant leadership, and other leadership styles. Hence, it will be erroneous to draw the conclusion that interactive leadership is solely “feminine.” There are women out there who have climbed the proverbial corporate ladder by adopting the command-and-control or transactional leadership model.1
Hence, the essence of this article is not to pour fuel into the competitive flames of who is a better leader, the man or the women, that is already raging in many circles. However, the core of the column is, first, to celebrate the strength of growing women leadership in many circles. Women leaders are rising in various cliques of human endeavor. Second, to celebrate the strength of womanhood and the methodology that that they bring to the leadership macrocosm. They are largely transformational leaders who exhibit a lot of empathy with a high Emotional Quotient (EQ) or EI. Third, it is also to instill a level of confidence in the up-and-coming generation of women to be confident in the leadership style that they exude. We must encourage our young girls by letting them know in their youth that they can attain greatness in leadership. Fourth, globalization is increasingly creating the need for a more sociable and participative work environment, and interactive leadership may be the wave of leadership in the future. Women can help forge the landscape of tomorrow’s leadership practice. Fifth, the article is a call to end the prejudice against women leadership and the stereotyping that often excludes them from leadership. It is a call to break the proverbial “glass ceiling” that bars women from rising to executive level roles in organizations. It is a clarion call for a more diverse workforce. That change has come, that change is now. Finally, it is the attempt to expand the definition of effective and sustainable leadership. So, as we celebrate men in positions of leadership, let us also celebrate womenfolk in various leadership roles as we understand how women lead.
- Wren, J. T. (1995). The leader’s companion: Insights on leadership through the ages. New York, NY: The Free Press.