In nearly four decades spent in the world of work I have come across a wide variety of leadership styles. Many of the people I’ve worked for have been supportive and have helped me to grow, while others – not so much. However, the one factor linking all my bosses is that every single one of them has been a man.
For much of my career, the dominant attributes associated with leadership have been associated with men. As Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic argues in his book ‘Why do so many incompetent men become leaders?: (and how to fix it)’, this is largely down to evolution. The problem is that too often we have interpreted bravado and confidence as a sign of competence. As Professor Chamorro-Premuzic says, the only advantage that men have over women is the fact that manifestations of hubris – often masked as charisma or charm – are commonly mistaken for leadership potential.
There are signs that this is changing. Polling by Portland shows that employees in the U.K. are wanting their leaders to be more empathetic, inclusive and, most of all, better communicators. While there are many enlightened men who demonstrate these traits, our poll shows these characteristics are most commonly associated with women.
In the survey, “listening and communicating effectively” was identified as the single most important quality in a leader by both men and women: 53% chose this as most valuable – three in six (57%) women and just below half (48%) of men. It was also the attribute that both men and women most commonly picked as what they like most about their current line manager at work.
Respondents were also more than twice as likely to associate communicating effectively as an attribute more often found in female leaders than male leaders (35% vs. 14%). This association was notably highest among female respondents, with as many as 43% saying it is a quality more often found in female leaders than in male ones. Other valuable leadership qualities chosen by people in our poll were “encouraging others” and “demonstrating empathy”. On the first one, exactly a third of women – 33% – said that female leaders were more likely to show this quality. On the second, very nearly a half of women – 46% – said that female leaders were more empathetic.
Women also prize inclusion, perhaps as a result of personal experience of having been excluded in their careers. Women are nearly twice as likely to say that being inclusive (e.g., inclusive of gender, ethnicity, disabilities, etc.) is one of the most valuable traits in a leader (29% vs. 16%), whereas men are twice as likely to say being collaborative (20% vs. 11%) is important. Put simply, a lot of women – it appears – seem to most value things at work which they feel that other women are better at providing.
These sentiments spill out of the workplace and into politics. Our poll found that when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic, 55% of women agree that female leaders – such as Nicola Sturgeon, Jacinda Ardern and Angela Merkel – handled it better than most leaders. This rises to 60% among young women aged 18-34 but drops to 43% among men. Significantly more women (66%) than men (53%) agree with the statement “having more female leaders in politics will strengthen gender equality in society more broadly.”
Our poll didn’t get into current events in Ukraine, but it’s a reasonable supposition to make that the world would not be in this situation if more female leaders were at the helm. To those of us in the west, the brutal strongman version of leadership displayed by Vladimir Putin feels anachronistic. By contrast, President Zelensky’s emotionally intelligent, human style is right for the times.
Right across politics and business, there are examples of men breaking free of historic archetypes and providing competent, empathetic leadership. They are to be encouraged for the way they are elevating standards of leadership. However, as we mark International Women’s Day, there is only one solution to dramatically improving the quality of leadership in the world and that is by having more women leaders.