What men can learn from women about leadership in the 21st century

August 10, 2011

A new Northwestern University meta-analysis, an integration of a large number of studies addressing the same question, shows that leadership continues to be viewed as culturally masculine. The studies found that women experience two primary forms of prejudice: They are viewed as less qualified or natural than men in most leadership roles, and when women do adopt culturally masculine behaviors often required by these roles, they may be viewed as inappropriate or presumptuous.

When generalizing about any population segment, especially such large and diverse segments as male and female leaders, there is bound to be a degree of inaccuracy and stereotyping. Still, research finds that predominantly communal qualities, such as being nice or compassionate, are more associated with women; and predominantly agentic qualities, such as being assertive or competitive, are more associated with men. 

For a long time, these agentic qualities have been culturally associated with successful leadership. But the 21st century is seeing the combination of new employees, new technologies and new global business realities add up to one word: collaboration. New workers are demanding it, advances in technology are enabling it, and the borderless organization of the future is dictating that future productivity gains can only be achieved by creating teams that are networked to span corporate and national boundaries.

These new business realities usher in the need for a new leadership model, one that replaces command and control with transparency and inclusion. This will increasingly highlight the value of a more feminine approach. Where in the past communal behaviors naturally favored by women may have been obstacles to leadership success, in a collaborative future they may well become an edge. 

Women employ a more participative leadership style, are more likely to share information and power, and have strong relational skills that make them seem empathic to their staffs. In both laboratory studies and observations of real leaders, the opposite was often found with men. Male leaders tend to be more transactional in their business dealings, favor a more hierarchical and directive approach, and appear more typically to convey formal authority.

Research at the University of Southern California may offer one explanation for this, as it found a striking gender difference in brain function when under stress. The distinction appeared in the brain regions that enable people to simulate and understand the emotions of others. According to the research, stress seemed to increase the capacity for empathy in women while reducing it in males.

Generally speaking, female leaders tend to be more interactive, wanting to keep an encounter going until the emotional content has been played out. Conversely, men’s discomfort dealing with emotion (and their brain’s innate response to it) leads them to immediately search for solutions, rather than understanding that sometimes people—including colleagues and employees—just need to be heard.

At Harvard University, Robert Rosenthal developed a test called the Profile of Nonverbal Sensitivity to analyze gender differences in decoding body language signals. With the exception of men who held jobs involving nurturing, artistic or expressive work, women (from fifth grade to adulthood) had superior scores in accurately judging messages communicated by facial expressions, body movement and voice quality.

And not only are women more adept at identifying nonverbal cues, they are better at expressing them—employing more animation, gesture, vocal variety and emotion in their communication behavior.They are more likely to focus on those who are speaking by orienting head and torso toward participants. They lean forward, smile, synchronize their movements with others, nod and tilt their heads (the universal signal of listening, literally giving someone your ear). To a woman, good listening skills also include making eye contact and reacting visually to the speaker. This use of warmer body language signals in turn builds trust and encourages collaboration.

Male leaders, on the other hand, have been found to send more nonverbal status signals. Men expand into available space: They stand tall or they sprawl, sitting with their legs spread or widely crossed, their materials spread out on a conference table, and their arms stretched out on the back of a chair. In a business meeting, they smile less than women, but employ more facial expressions that come across as intimidating, overpowering or disinterested.

Such status and power cues make male executives look like leaders. Or at least they did in a hierarchical, command-and-control setting. But when it comes to leading collaborative teams, status cues can undermine the organization’s efforts. If you behave like the boss who has all the answers, why would anyone else need or dare to contribute?

The most successful leaders of the future will take the time and effort necessary to make people feel safe and valued. They’ll emphasize team cohesiveness while encouraging candid and constructive conflict, they’ll set clear expectations while recognizing what each team member contributes, they’ll share the credit and the rewards. And, most of all, they’ll foster true networked collaboration through a leadership style that projects openness, inclusiveness and respect.

Any leader can do that. Female leaders just already do it more naturally.

Carol Kinsey Goman is an executive coach and the author of The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help or Hurt How You Lead.

More on women and leadership:

PHOTOS | Women who broke barriers

VIDEO | Alice Rivlin on the importance of speaking up

VIDEO | USGS Director Marcia McNutt on gaining credibility

Be in the know on all we’re covering here at On Leadership by following us on Facebook and Twitter (On Leadership: @post_lead, and On Leadership editor: @lily_cunningham).

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