by Rachael Jansen
If we truly want gender equality and to see women rise – and we do – then we need to stop discussing women and gender as such, and instead talk about leadership qualities needed for the future.
When the narrative continues along gender lines, the focus continues to be on what separates men and women, which facilitates a ‘for and against’ argument.
However, when the discussion turns to the attributes leaders of any gender can foster for transformational leadership, then women will naturally be considered for leadership positions for the simple fact that they often innately possess many of those attributes.
In the recently released Australian Women CEOs Speak report, produced by the Korn Ferry Institute in collaboration with the Australian Institute of Directors, researchers interviewed 21 women who are currently serving or had previously served as CEO or equivalent roles and psychometric assessment of 16 of the female CEOs.
The research looked at traits and factors that contributed to the success of these women and compared the results to global benchmarks.
The results weren’t necessarily surprising but do show how women’s leadership styles fit with the ideas touted as being the future of leadership and management in the 21st century.
Three ways women’s strengths suit transformational leadership
Purpose versus power
The report showed women’s interests in leadership often came from a different foundation or perspective – that they were less interested in power or status than the benchmark, and more attracted to their roles through a sense of purpose.
We shouldn’t interpret that as women are never attracted to status, because status is an inherently human desire. It’s also not to say there aren’t plenty of men who desire to lead from a sense of purpose because many do.
It’s the premise of purpose though that is one of the critical shifts in business for the future for three valuable reasons:
- Purpose and an articulated vision around the purpose of the work being done, is a fundamental driver of positive workplace and organisational culture;
- Purpose is also a motivating factor for Millenials and the workforce of the future – the new workforce is highly engaged in working for a purpose not just a pay packet;
- Purpose is a reputation builder – an organisation that displays leadership and direction around a purpose becomes known for more than just its products or services.
The old-fashioned idea that leadership is about power has been superceded by the notion that leaders inspire a group of like-minded people around a common purpose.
Read or listen to Seth Godin’s book Tribes to see how powerful the concept is.
Collaboration versus control
The Women CEOs Speak report found the women were attracted to a more collaborative style of leadership and were driven by a desire to lead in a positive manner.
They cared how the work was going to be done and not just what was going to be done.
Affiliation was a highly-ranked trait, as were curiosity and trust.
In other words, women lead through teams and teamwork, are interested in what other people think and have faith in those around them.
This is in stark contrast to the traditional managerial or authoritarian and hierarchical style of leadership we’ve seen since feudal times – where there’s a boss who tells people what to do and workers just do that.
These kind of traits – whether held by a woman or a man – speak directly to building a positive workplace culture, where employees feel they and their work are valued.
It allows room for innovation and creativity from a team who feels welcome to contribute.
Self-doubt versus superiority
A third of the respondents in the Korn Ferry report said they had experienced self-doubt and scored themselves below the benchmark for confidence and assertiveness.
This is a common criticism of women as leaders and used as a weakness marker in their leadership abilities.
Self-doubt isn’t solely a female experience though. Men also experience self-doubt, yet the literature is heavily skewed towards reporting on how women often doubt their ability.
Perhaps this is simply because women are more likely to admit their self-doubt or act accordingly.
And are they rating their confidence and assertiveness lower because they’re comparing themselves to what they’ve seen in leadership previously? That is, they believe they have lower confidence and are less assertive than the men they’ve worked for and with previously.
Self-doubt or a lack of confidence or assertiveness doesn’t equate to poor leadership and in fact can be key to transformational leadership.
It may look different in terms of the style of leadership shown but self-doubt can be a sign of self-awareness, and self-awareness has been identified as one of the most powerful tools a leader can develop for success.
Being aware of both your strengths and weaknesses can be a positive when it comes to making decisions, and taking a moment to thoroughly consider your actions and decisions can be a positive, considered approach, especially when there is a lot at stake.
A leadership style that is driven by a sense of superiority is now likely to repel people, not attract them.
Overconfidence is also risky – if you believe you have all the answers, you fail to look for the answers you don’t have. You don’t know what you don’t know.
The Korn Ferry report advised organisations not to discount humble or those who share credit because those type of people can become superior leaders.
Both men and women can equally be good leaders yet have leadership styles that are completely different.
Different doesn’t mean better or worse, weaker or stronger. It’s simply different.
As men have traditionally been the leaders, there is an entrenched idea of what leadership looks like based on inherent male characteristics.
Women have had few leadership opportunities, so their arrival in the C-Suite or boardroom has seen them either follow the (male) leader and fit in, or do it their own way and stand out as being different.
The Korn Ferry report stated action on diversity at executive and board ranks remain ‘fragile’ and that gendered commentary that frames discussion about women’s performance is ‘unedifying and unhelpful’.
It said there’s a statistically significant correlation between diverse leadership teams and financial out-performance, yet despite there being no business case that supports male dominated leadership, the status quo remains.
The report suggests a shift in focus away from ‘counting heads’ to instead looking at the factors that need to come together to enable a successful career.
So while quotas exist to open the door for gender diversity, there’s still a long way to go but one way to move forward with more clarity is to shift the conversation to one where the differences in the way some women lead are seen as something new, not wrong, and that they have abilities and traits well-suited to the future.
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Rachael is a reputation strategist who draws on her extensive experience as a journalist to help her clients formulate fresh strategic ideas and identify key issues in what is fast becoming a data-complex decision-making environment.
She facilitates digital and stakeholder engagement workshops to help teams think outside the office-box and works with professionals to raise their profile and reputation as leaders.