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Is Leadership Feminine?

The meaning of leadership is inexorably shifting from masculine to feminine, from calling the shots to engaging, coaching and nurturing employees. The risk is that real leadership will be lost in the shuffle, a classic case of throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Executives used to lead by showing the way, by taking people on a journey, as Kouzes and Posner put it. But now they are switching to facilitation, creating the conditions for others to succeed. In a world too complex for one person to decide new strategies, level 5 leaders draw them out of their teams (first who then what).

Such leadership has rightly been called "paradoxical" because it suggests "leading by not leading."The paradox is that leading suggests literally showing the way but how can it be if leadership means supporting others to act? Many executives still call the shots, but are they on their way out? No doubt some do both: direct and facilitate. But are they merely in transition to a completely new way of leading (or not leading)?

The Feminization of Business

An increasing number of writers argue that women might be better leaders than men. They are certainly on to something. There is no doubt a greater premium today on interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence, relationship building, listening skills and the ability to nurture talent: all stereotypical feminine talents.

In the Alpha Male Syndrome, Kate Ludeman and Eddie Erlandson claim that time is up for the alpha male style of leadership. Alpha males, they say ‘’are aggressive, results-driven achievers who insist on top performance from themselves and others.’’ Ludeman and Erlandson endorse a more feminine style of leadership, noting that ‘’female managers tend to be perceived as more consultative and inclusive, whereas men are more directive and task oriented.’’2

This issue can be explored on a number of levels

  1. Women versus men as leaders
  2. The relative importance of feminine versus masculine traits
  3. Evolving organizational cultures
  4. The changing meaning of leadership

1. Women versus Men as Leaders

At this level, the issue is a non-starter. We can't say in general that women are better leaders than men because the requirements for particular leadership roles are too situational. Secondly, some men have stronger interpersonal skills than some women. Then there are women like Margaret Thatcher who had more masculine competitiveness and decisiveness than many of her male rivals. For a particular role, a male and female candidate might have identical styles but one might have more relevant experience or knowledge.

2.  Feminine versus Masculine Traits

Talk of stereotypical male and female traits is independent of who possesses them. Some men could have more feminine leadership skills than some women and vice versa. Some roles, especially if a business is in a crisis, might call for masculine toughness and decisiveness while others that depend on cultivating relationships with different cultures might require an executive to have more feminine emotional intelligence. The point in classifying some traits as masculine or feminine is just to highlight the increasing importance of the latter.

A good deal of executive coaching focuses on helping executives (whether men or women) develop greater interpersonal sensitivity. Without explicitly intending it, they are coaching leaders to be more feminine.

3. Evolving Organizational Cultures

The issue makes a lot of sense at this level. Organizations are irrevocably more feminine today than they were in the past and for good reason. Complexity alone calls for closer collaboration among diverse specialists: knowledge workers who can't be ordered around, who need to be involved and fully engaged to contribute to their full potential.

Employee engagement doesn't happen unless managers are sufficiently engaging. Research suggests that employees leave bad managers, not companies. Developing and retaining top talent is more likely if managers have emotional intelligence and nurturing skills.

With so many competing ideas and agendas, there is a huge demand for conflict resolution skills, the ability to foster relationships, engage people and create two-way dialogue, listen and coach, be a catalyst or facilitator. Regardless of who has these skills, success increasingly depends on them. Cultures that reward and develop such skills are more likely to succeed than those that celebrate masculine individualism and toughness exclusively.

4. The Changing Meaning of Leadership

At a deeper level, not only are organizational cultures becoming more feminine, the very meaning of leadership is changing. We could remain in denial by saying that qualities such as emotional intelligence are merely add-ons to a leader's toolkit. But there is no getting away from the fact that the connection between leadership and providing direction is breaking down.

To fully engage talented knowledge workers, who can find their own direction, executives need to develop a jointly owned way forward using two-way dialogue rather than provide unilateral direction. As complexity grows and knowledge workers become more knowledgeable than their bosses, unilateral direction is getting harder to offer in any case. Senior executives are now catalysts, coaches and facilitators rather than ivory tower futurists with a crystal ball.

They may provide a vision, after consultation with team members and stakeholders of course, but these are often little more than vague motherhood statements. In any case, they are often parked on a shelf without providing much day to day direction which tends to emerge and morph in unforeseen ways en route.

But is this a bad thing? Is not jointly decided strategy more likely to foster wider ownership and deeper employee engagement? Yes, but is this really leadership? Shouldn't we face reality, stop calling executives leaders and re-label them as Chief Facilitators or Head Coaches?

Even if direction is decided jointly, executives still retain the veto, the right to break a deadlock or pursue a different direction altogether. Does this mean that they provide leadership only in such situations, if they arise, then revert to their Head Coach or Chief Facilitator role? This suggests that leadership is an occasional activity rather than a role, or at best, a sub-role.

The Leader as Head of a Group

A resolutely masculine connotation of leadership is the idea that a leader is someone with the power to dominate a group, get chosen for the top position and hold onto the associated authority. The drive to dominate is masculine even where women are CEOs.

But what is the basis of an executive's ability to dominate a group? Once it was sheer physical prowess, as it remains in the animal kingdom. We still admire style over substance, hence the premium on force of personality or charisma. However, it can be argued that the ability to provide direction is the most important factor underpinning group domination.

Consider the fact that everyone is on a mission and in a hurry, as individuals and organizations. We want to get somewhere and we don't have much time. Individually we want to achieve ambitious dreams in a short lifespan. We want to join organizations that are also going somewhere, like a cruise ship heading to an exotic destination. We thus desire direction, either to find it ourselves or to follow someone who has it.

The critical role of direction is easiest to see in crisis situations like being lost in a jungle or caught in a burning building. Here we would follow anyone who could lead us to safety even if our leader had zero charisma and an abrasive style.

Direction in a crisis is unilateral where only the leader knows the way. But what happens in complex situations where all group members want to contribute, they have their own ideas about where to go or how to get there and there is no obviously right way forward?

To dominate a knowledgeable group operating in a complex world, aspiring executives can only promote their ability to HELP the group achieve its goals. With little direction to provide, their success rests on helping the organization and its employees achieve success with coaching and facilitation skills.

But, is helping leading? If so, then we have fully redefined leadership in feminine terms and we have turned our backs on a core meaning of leadership: to provide direction.

A critical type of directional leadership, at risk of extinction, is still possible. As in a crisis, it is easier to see in simple situations. When a front-line innovator promotes a new product, as did the developer of PlayStation to Sony executives, this is bottom-up leadership. Being merely one product, this context is not as complex as trying to direct an entire organization.

Unlike CEOs, however, bottom-up leaders, with no authority to decide anything, rely on influence alone. They challenge the status quo by promoting a better way. But this is precisely what Martin Luther King, Jr. was doing. He had no authority over the general population or the U.S. Supreme Court when he challenged the way that African Americans were treated.

Like the bottom-up leader, King challenged the status quo by promoting a better way. This was not about occupying an ongoing, hierarchical role. Rather, it was a discrete act of leadership. He did not facilitate a meeting of relevant government officials; he spoke over their heads to the population at large. He offered a new direction rather than help people find it for themselves.

From Person to Process

Like CEOs, Martin Luther King is a special kind of person. But we need to notice a critical shift here from person to process. A CEO is a role occupant. King's leadership was a discrete event. For example, when he induced the U.S. Supreme Court to outlaw segregation on buses, this was a one-off leadership impact, not a role within the Supreme Court.

This is a huge shift in perspective because it opens the door for discrete acts of leadership to be shown by employees who we would not regard as positional leadership material. When an innovative knowledge worker presents hard evidence for a better way, any lack of charisma or emotional intelligence is irrelevant.

Similarly, if the ability to provide direction in this sense is what leadership really means, and it isn't restricted to internal role holders, then it can come from outside the organization altogether. This angle accounts for market leadership where one company leads another by example. So, not only can outsiders lead, it doesn't even have to be an individual. A market leading company cannot be a chief executive but it can have a discrete leadership impact on its competitors.

Of course this is only part of the story. We need to reinvent management in facilitative terms and show how executive decisions are always managerial.3 They must be so if leadership is genuinely an influence process and can be shown by people with no decision making authority.

The Bottom Line

To rescue directional leadership from oblivion, recast as showing the way for others, we need to reframe executive roles as managerial. As CEOs rightly become  more engaging and facilitating, hence feminine in their styles, they are shifting from leadership to management.

So what? Well, redefining leadership as facilitative preserves the monopoly that executives have on leadership. But this is a problem for innovation-hungry businesses that need all employees to think creatively for new directions. To more fully engage such employees, they need to be seen as showing leadership even if they have no potential to be positional leaders.

Businesses are fighting a war of ideas. If we redefine leadership along feminine engaging lines, we are switching our focus from content to form or style just when we need new content faster. Leadership as direction, based on new content, can come from anywhere.

  1. ''An Organic Approach to Management’‘, Roger Lewin and Girute Regine, Ernst and Young’s Perspectives in Business Innovation, No: 4, pp 19 - 26, January 2000.
  2. Alpha Male Syndrome, Kate Ludeman and Eddie Erlandson, Harvard Business School Press, 2006.
  3. "Leadership and Management Reinvented," Mitch McCrimmon, Ivey Business Journal, May/June, 2010.

See also: Are Women Better Leaders than Men?

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