Communicating as a Leader

One More Time; Do Women Make Better Leaders Than Men?

Anthony F. Smith asked:

An outsider, studying our culture from the headlines on business and news magazines, might wonder what all the fuss is about. Women wanted the top jobs, then they got them, then they didn’t want them anymore. Men wanted to keep women out, then they thought that becoming more feminine would give them a competitive advantage, then they got tough and ruthless all over again. Now women are nearly as ubiquitous as men in the middle management ranks, and there are enough women making an impact at the “C” level that no one can label them token representatives anymore. But while things may look slightly better in terms of numbers, something is still not quite right below the surface. Male or female, gender isn’t supposed to matter in the corporate setting anymore. So how come the bulk of the research out there points to the same ugly problems concerning women in leadership?

You see, ever since the industrial revolution — or at least the 1930s — the organization had been markedly masculine. The dominant “mechanical school” of organizational theory, for example, was founded on such ideas as centralized authority, specialization and expertise, division of labor, principles, rules, and regulations. The emerging organization, however, was more feminine in gender because it was characterized by collaboration, the delegation of authority, empowerment, trust, openness, concern for the whole person, an emphasis on interpersonal relations, and the inevitability of interdependence. The type of organization that would appear to be the perfect platform for what Dr. Lois Frankel calls the “feminization of leadership”. In her instructive book, See Jane Lead (2007), Frankel states that women have always lead, but not in ways that were valued or recognized in the old, mechanical school. Women, it would seem, were finally in the right place at the right time

So Soft It’s Hard

With a flattened organizational structure, and a knowledge economy that put a premium on such feminine characteristics as collaboration, trust and sensitivity, it was only a matter of time before some social psychologist decided to start grooming men in a new way. After all these years, men were now told that hard skills were not really that important when it came to leadership. Technical attributes were like tool belts; they could be picked up at the hardware store when needed, and strapped on to suit the task at hand. Being smart was way less important than being emotionally intelligent.

According to writers like Daniel Goleman, women have emotional intelligence in spades. All that time spent chatting instead of getting to the crux of important issues? That was really about bonding, openness, sharing, empathy, building rapport, and trust. How about the need to consult everyone in the organization from the boss to the janitor before making an important decision? That was all about consensus building, alignment, and seeing the issue from multiple perspectives.

During the boom years, it seemed to work. Productivity was high, stock prices rose, new markets emerged and old markets got bigger and more profitable. Maybe this business of the organization and leadership becoming feminine wasn’t so bad after all? Then the bubble burst, the economy contracted, and long-range projections for growth fell off a cliff. Time to baton down the hatches. After all, when the going gets tough the tough get going.

That’s when women started to reconsider what I call “ROL”, or Return on Leadership.

Who’s Sorry Now?

When the going got tough, a lot of women decided they didn’t want to be any tougher. All of that slaving for the big bucks, working yourself to the bone, ripping the fabric of your family and personal life to shreds . . . maybe it just wasn’t worth it; the ROL was in the “red” for many talented women. The headlines on those business and news magazines said it all. Women Aren’t In The Corner Office, They Don’t Want Power, They’re Opting Out . . . magazines like Fortune, FastCompany, and the New York Times Magazine exclaimed. Warren Farrell’s taboo-busting book, Why Men Earn More, laid it out straight: women tend to put in less time than men, working fewer hours; and, statistically, people who work 44 hours a week make almost twice as much as those who work 34 hours. As a result, women still comprise fewer than 2% of Fortune 1000 CEO’s and just 7.9% of Fortune 500 top earners. As an article in the Wall Street Journal (10/24/05) pointed out, the reasons are many; “women hit their prime child bearing years at the same time they are most pressured to prove themselves at work; they are reluctant to put in the 80-hour work week and globe trotting required for the corner office; they are too concentrated on staff positions like HR and marketing, where they never learn P&L responsibility; and they don’t have informed mentoring and networking opportunities, like golfing with the guys. These theories belie a consistent finding in the research — there is little difference between the leadership abilities of successful male and female bosses. Carol Hymowitz of the WSJ hit it right on the head when she states, “the big problem is both sexes believe their own biased perceptions more than they believe [the facts].” To be sure, I, and a number of researchers, realize that women still face an inherent bias in or society, adding to the challenges that Alice Eagly and Linda Carli describe in their HBR article (September 2007) Women and The Labyrinth of Leadership. In the language of psychologists, they state that the clash is between two sets of associations: “communal and agentic”. Women are still associated with communal traits, which denote compassion and affection, whereas men are associated with agentic, or dominant, self reliant, and confident traits; core to the traditional notion of leadership.

For all of these reasons and theories, research organizations like Catalyst claimed that women were leaving Fortune 500 companies at an astounding 1400 women per day rate. Where they were going was anyone’s guess, but given the level of heated discussion over the issue of work-life balance, we can imagine that they were sick of the grind. Maybe power wasn’t worth it? Maybe the glass ceiling was more like plexiglas protection around a violent hockey game? Or maybe the women are not getting the intellectual stimulation they need, or, as a May 1, 2005 article in the New York Times decided, they are just bored. (“Behind the Exodus of Executive Women: Boredom.”)

Frankly, many men are beginning to analyze their ROL as well, and coming to the same conclusions that apparently many women have come too. In a study conducted by Burson and Marsteller, in 2001, 27% of Senior Executives said they are not interested in becoming CEO. In 2005, over 60% said they are not interested. I would only assume that this percentage has risen significantly again in the last two years.

On The Folly of Hoping For “A” While Rewarding “B”

The true nature of our problem, in my opinion, is explained best in Steve Kerr’s famous essay, “On the Folly of Hoping for ‘A’ While Rewarding ‘B’.” Kerr described a common problem in HR development initiatives. We say we want “X” but we persist in rewarding “Y.” Consider the case of the feminization of leadership. A whole generation of leaders — men and women alike — were developed on the notion that sensitive, caring, coalition-building characteristics would lead to success. Open your arms, give your employees a big hug, explain everything they ever wanted to know about your motivations and underlying objectives, empower them, set them free, and they will perform for you at unprecedented levels, thereby securing your ultimate goals. It’s a win-win-win situation.

Does it work like that in the real world? Well, as Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

In the real world, leadership is not
always most effective when it is most caring, open, transparent, sensitive and empowering.
In fact, fear, manipulation, ruthlessness, power-hoarding and the competitive will to win at all costs are common characteristics of our best, and most effective leaders. While that may not sound very warm and fuzzy, it cannot be ignored. The organization may have become more feminine in structure and culture at the dawn of the knowledge era; but business results remain unabashedly male. Leadership may have softened in the last decade, but getting to the top, and staying there once you’ve made it, remains a tough, hard, ruthless, and overtly political act.

It isn’t pretty to think so; but it’s real.

In the Final Analysis

Is leadership gender neutral, or does gender matter? Are men better at the leadership thing in practice, or do women have better leadership attributes in theory?

I think we will be debating these questions for centuries to come. But for the record, as far as the skill side of the leadership equation, I (and many other researchers) think women do have the edge. The differentiator appears to be on the will side of the equation. This is why I plainly state in my by book, The Taboos of Leadership, that women do make better leaders, when that’s what they really want to do. The important point, however, is that all leaders, prospective leaders, and followers — men and women alike — need to understand the true nature of leadership. It’s messy. It’s not clean cut. Some characteristics work in some situations. But to put our head in the sand, and wish the ugly side away will cause us to fail.

I think that men and women could learn a lot from each other about leadership if they could talk about the elephant in the room. Women have all of the tools to be leaders. So do men. We all have different tools in different balances; and we all need to lean on some strengths over others, or compensate for weaknesses.

A Few Presumptuous Considerations for Women (and Men)

Remember that leadership isn’t the only noble and worthy pursuit in an organization. I hear the rhetoric too that everyone “can and should” be a leader. I think this is so widely accepted because very few understand what leadership really is. Being excellent and great at what you do doesn’t always translate into becoming a leader; we can’t forget that some of the greatest individuals in history had a significant impact in life without being a “leader.” I think we would be better off if everyone believed that they “can and should be” a productive, wonderful, compassionate, loving human being.

If you have pursued becoming a leader, and your ROL is in the red, consider “Quitting”. I highly recommend Seth Godin’s new book entitled, The Dip; A Little Book that Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick). He states that when you find yourself asking if the goal is even worth the hassle, “maybe you are in the “dip” — a temporary setback that you can overcome if you keep pushing. But maybe it’s really a Cul-de-Sac, which will never get better, no matter how hard you try.” He goes on to say that “believe or not, quitting is often a great strategy, a smart way to manage your life and your career.”

Consider “Entrepreneur” Leadership instead of “Corporate” Leadership. I know it sounds easy, but the challenges that one encounters in building their own business may be less demanding and less restrictive than trying to climb the corporate ladder. In many corporations, getting to the “top” requires that you prove you can develop, run, grow, and lead a team or organization to profitability; why not do the same for your self instead of a Fortune 500 company and all it’s shareholders?

Break the Taboo of Discussing Gender in the Workplace. If women are only talking to other women about the struggles of leadership, and men are only talking to other men about “women” leaders, progress will continue to be slow. In Eagly and Carli’s HBR article referenced earlier, they state that women have traditionally “underinvested” in social capital. They cite a study that suggests that social capital is even more necessary to a managers advancement than “the skillful performance of traditional managerial tasks.” Let me emphasize that the “social networks” need to comprise both men and women if greater understanding (and thus, appreciation) among the sexes is to be achieved. Women have traditionally complained that ‘breaking” into the “good ole’ boy’s” network meant that they learn to play golf, drink Scotch, and have an occasional lunch at Hooters. Let me just state plainly; if these are the mores of the leadership within the company you want to advance in, you probably do need to learn “to play the game.” Let me also state that this applies as much to men as to women. I have coached several male executives over the years who were faced with the same challenge, and who opposed going to Hooter’s, hated golf, and preferred Chardonnay over Scotch . . . and my counsel was the same for them . . . learn the game or find an organization that more closely reflects your values, hobbies, and preferences.

Make it known that it’s your intent to become a leader in your organization. So many men and women alike engage in what I call “hinting and hoping” around their aspiration to become a leader. When a female partner let us know that she wanted to become a leader in our firm, and that she also intended on having a family, we were all able to help her manage her “path to partner” much more effectively than if we all would have waited around and second guessed one another about the “what if’s?” There were no surprises; we, the leaders in the firm, did not sit around and wonder if she was planning on leaving once she became pregnant, and we committed to providing feedback, coaching and mentoring, all focused around what she needed to do to become partner. Remember, if you have the skill and will to lead, and you make it known, you may find much greater support, which may even accelerate your path to leadership.

Copyright © 2007 Anthony F. Smith

Anthony Smith is Co-Founder and a Managing Director of Leadership Research Institute and author of The Taboos of Leadership: 10 Secrets No One Will Tell You about Leaders and What They Really Think (Jossey-Bass, May 2007).


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