Leadership lessons from women

08 March, 2021

Instead of telling female leaders to be more like men, it’s high time we focus on learning from them.

The pandemic has shone a spotlight on female leadership. Countries led by women – from Norway and Denmark, to Taiwan and New Zealand – have had better COVID outcomes and become examples for the entire world. As opposed to command-and-control leadership, we are seeing an increased preference for “relational” leaders who put people first and demonstrate qualities like warmth and compassion. A recent article in Bloomberg highlights an interesting finding: 

An analysis of 122 speeches made by heads of governments across the globe showed that male leaders used more war analogies and fear-based tactics in talking about the virus. In contrast, female leaders focused on people – families, children and vulnerable groups – with a message of compassion and social cohesion.

In business, too, women have shown that they possibly lead better through turbulent periods. A recent study by leadership consultancy Zenger/Folkman focused on how male and female leaders respond during crisis. The findings were eye-opening. Women leaders scored better on 13 of the 19 competencies comprising overall leadership effectiveness, as well as emerging six points ahead on employee engagement. When employees were asked which skills they valued most in leaders, the top answers included “inspires and motivates”, “communicates powerfully”, “collaboration/teamwork”, and “relationship building” – all of which women were rated higher on.

With women leaders doing such an exemplary job, especially as demonstrated during the pandemic, more and more people are asking: Has the time come for a female leadership style to take centre stage? This Women’s Day, my message focuses on the lessons we can learn from women leaders. Which “feminine” leadership behaviours could be an asset for all modern-day leaders, across genders? 

Let’s flip the perspective

Research has consistently shown that while women lean towards relational leadership, men have a more transactional style that is task-focused and directive-driven. In order to gain access to top spots in the corporate world, women executives are often advised to act more like men. In their article for the Harvard Business Review, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Cindy Gallop explain: 

Although there is a great deal of public interest in ensuring more women become leaders, thereby reversing their under-representation in the ranks of power, too many suggested solutions are founded on the misconception that women ought to emulate men. The thinking is: “If men have most of the top roles, they must be doing something right, so why not get women to act like them?”

This is unfortunate because women bring highly valuable traits to the table, many of which are better-suited to address today’s business challenges – as compared with the traditional leadership approach favoured by men.

Overall, female leaders tend to be more self-aware, more empathetic and more inclusive. They focus on building trust, offering their employees meaningful support, and inspiring behaviour change.

Instead of telling female leaders to be more like men, it’s high time we focus on learning from them. Irrespective of gender, today’s leaders can benefit from adopting the positive leadership behaviours commonly displayed by women. As the HBR piece notes: 

This would create a pool of better role models who could pave the way for both competent men and women to advance…. The best gender equality intervention is to focus on equality of talent and potential – and that only happens when we have gender-equal leadership to enable men to learn different leadership approaches from women as much as women have always been told to learn leadership approaches from men. 

Take the cue from women leaders

Here are eight crucial lessons we can learn from successful women leaders:

1. Know yourself.

Although women are frequently advised to put on a show of confidence and “fake it till they make it”, evidence shows that one of their greatest strengths is being aware of their own limitations. While self-belief is widely praised as a leadership quality, self-awareness is perhaps even more important. It guards against overconfidence, enables ongoing learning, and drives diligent preparation – all of which raise your performance as a leader. So, instead of ignoring our self-doubts, let’s use them to enable reflection and become better leaders.

2. Communicate honestly.

Broadly speaking, men and women communicate in different ways. For male leaders, the primary focus is on providing information. They feel more under pressure to have all the answers, which can lead to delays in communication and leave employees in the dark during uncertain times. In contrast, female leaders are more willing to share updates, even if they don’t yet have the complete picture. They are open about the gaps in their knowledge, which builds trust and credibility, creates a safe space for discussion, and helps employees manage uncertainty.

3. Connect deeply.

Women excel at forming, nurturing and maintaining strong relationships, bolstered by their ability to read between the lines, interpret non-verbal cues and ask insightful questions. It is certainly worthwhile for all leaders to observe and emulate these skills. By connecting more deeply with your team members, you will gain a better understanding of their hopes, ambitions and fears – all of which are integral to fulfilling your mandate as a leader.

4. Demonstrate empathy.

Women are often told they’re too sensitive and compassionate to be effective leaders. But let’s think about that for a moment: do we really want leaders who are not sensitive and compassionate? According to a DDI study that tracked 15,000 leaders across twenty industries, empathy topped the list as the most critical driver of overall performance.

Being able to empathise is a core competency for modern-day leaders. When employees know that you care about them as people, they respond with loyalty, respect and their best work. This element of humanisation is also what sets us apart from machines! As the authors of the HBR article point out:

Twenty-first century leadership demands that leaders establish an emotional connection with their followers, and that is arguably the only reason to expect leaders to avoid automation. Indeed, while AI will hijack the technical and hard-skill elements of leadership, so long as we have humans at work, they will crave the validation, appreciation, and empathy that only humans – not machines – can provide.

5. Include everyone.

The best women leaders are proactive about including everyone in their plans and vision for the future. We saw a great example of this from Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, who held events aimed at addressing children’s fears around COVID – even though they aren’t part of the voter base. This kind of meaningful inclusion can help leaders to demonstrate that they care for everyone in their organisation, which acts as an antidote to polarization, conflict and resentment.

6. Transform through purpose.

Leaders with strong emotional intelligence can drive transformative behaviour change without issuing diktats and forcing compliance. Not only do they inspire change by modelling positive behaviours but also infuse work with meaning and purpose. The HBR article mentioned above explains: 

Academic studies show that women are more likely to lead through inspiration, transforming people’s attitudes and beliefs, and aligning people with meaning and purpose (rather than through carrots and sticks), than men are. Since transformational leadership is linked to higher levels of team engagement, performance, and productivity, it is a critical path to improving leaders’ performance. If men spent more time trying to win people’s hearts and souls, leading with both EQ and IQ, as opposed to leaning more on the latter, and nurturing a change in beliefs rather than behaviors, they would be better leaders.

7. Put people first.

Several of the male leaders labelled “successful” by the media score high on individual accomplishment – but low when it comes to the welfare of their employees and the long-term health of their organisation. This happens when the leader’s mindset is self-centred and focused only on superficial trappings like status, power and pay-check. 

Let’s take a leaf out of the book of women leaders and focus on leadership in its best sense: serving team members, uplifting the communities we work in, and building something bigger than ourselves. This means making people your top priority and providing the support they need – even when times get tough.

8. Empower others.

Leadership is evolving from an autocratic top-down style to a more flexible approach that embraces multiple perspectives and delegates authority. Take the cue from women in charge and focus on collaboration, rather than control. Remember, as a leader, you don’t need to make all the decisions on your own. Ask team members to weigh in with their opinions and concerns, and trust them enough to make certain choices. Recognise their contributions, and be vocal about sharing the credit for any and all successes.

Whenever a crisis hits, women leaders rise to the occasion. With self-awareness, authenticity, empathy and compassion, they bail out teams, organisations and even entire countries. Given the growing evidence around the benefits of relational leadership, we must look beyond the tough control-and-command approach traditionally adopted by men. It’s time to learn from women in charge and create a gender-balanced leadership style that is far more suited to today’s world.


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