With cracks showing in a traditional masculine style of leadership, Sarah Lang argues that we need to reframe what the words ‘leader’ and ‘leadership’ mean for the next generation of female leaders – and why that’s so critical, at a time when so many young girls are turning away from leadership.
Something Jacinda Ardern said in her resignation speech struck us. It was her hope that “I leave behind a belief that you can be kind, but strong. Empathetic, but decisive. Optimistic, but focused. That you can be your own kind of leader”.
The word ‘leadership’ is generally associated with stereotypically male characteristics. Decisive. Staunch. Self-assured. Firm. No-nonsense. We might even fall into using the pronoun ‘he’. He might put in long hours. He might make decisions on his own. He might be hard on others in an effort to see results.
Men have been defining and framing leadership in this kind of way for decades, nay, centuries, as though this is the only way to lead. Of the female leaders who have somehow managed to break the glass ceiling, there’s an ingrained expectation that they should adhere to a traditionally male leadership model that can involve egoism and immutability.
But what if there was a different model? What if we could regard so-called ‘soft skills’ – including kindness, empathy, encouragement, building others up, making decisions with others’ help, and helping people find a work-life balance – as essential elements of leadership?
“”Feminine’ qualities are not just a strength, they’re essential for managing the complex problems the world faces.”
Being PM, Jacinda had to work long hours, but she also showed that, as a leader, you could do things a different way. She showed that kind and strong weren’t mutually exclusive, and neither were empathetic and decisive. Jacinda was all of these things when she got straight on a plane to Christchurch after the mosque shootings, donned a hijab and embraced those affected, and changed New Zealand’s gun laws, including banning assault rifles and military-style semi-automatics. When she fronted New Zealand’s response to Covid – an incredibly difficult challenge for any political leader – Jacinda was strong and decisive about what was needed, but also reminded us to please be kind and empathetic to each other. She remained focused and optimistic (which mattered so much in this time of crisis and uncertainty).
Arwa Mahdawi – a Guardian columnist, speaker, and business consultant – mentions Jacinda with admiration several times in her book Strong Female Lead: Lessons From Women In Power. “The pandemic prompted a widespread reassessment of the sort of characteristics leaders should display,” Mahdawi writes. “Much of the world looked to the likes of Jacinda Ardern and sobbed ‘why can’t we have someone like her in charge?’. There was a growing realisation that ‘feminine’ qualities aren’t a weakness, they’re a strength. And they’re not just a strength, they’re essential for managing the complex problems the world faces.”
She’s right. We need leaders with these qualities to help solve our most pressing problems. Cataclysmic climate change, a global pandemic, the Russian-Ukraine war, hate crimes, economic downturn, deep political divisions, and misinformation, for starters. Things that require teamwork not just within countries but between countries.
Let’s not even go there with Putin and Trump, but Mahdawi uses a certain businessman as an example. “Why do so many men see Elon Musk as a role model?” she writes. “It’s because we associate heroism and leadership with a very specific set of stereotypically male qualities. Musk has these qualities in spades: confidence bordering on arrogance, competitiveness, aggressiveness, risk-taking, charisma. There’s nothing wrong with these things per se – what’s problematic is the extent to which they define our idea of leadership.”
“For decades, women have been told that if we want to get ahead in politics or business, we need to develop those sorts of qualities. We’re sent to management training courses where we’re told we need to raise our voices, be more assertive, and never say ‘sorry’. We’re told that stereotypically ‘feminine’ qualities like collaboration and empathy are weaknesses and [that] ‘masculine’ traits are strengths. We’re told that, in order to succeed, we need to act more like men.”
In her book, Mahdawi investigates the qualities and characteristics – many typically thought of as ‘feminine’ – that make a strong leader, doing original research and interviews. We learn about the leadership qualities of [the late] politician, first female US secretary of state, diplomat and political scientist Madeleine Albright; the Irish president, lawyer, and diplomat Mary Robinson; the civil-rights activist and Black Lives Matter movement founder Alicia Garza; Taiwan’s first transgender and non-binary member of government Audrey Tang; and others. Throughout, Arwa keeps the focus on one question: What can women in power teach all of us about leadership? The short answer: a lot.
We recommend all of Arwa’s book, but here are some key points. “You solve the crisis of trust with leaders who… use clear language that creates accountability; leaders who say what they mean and mean what they say”. Another point: “optimism and realism are a powerful package”. And another: that collaboration is crucial and “ego is the enemy of collaboration”.
“A recent survey of nine- to 18-year-old girls reported that they rank ‘being a leader’ the lowest priority in a list of 17 attributes for future work.”
Mahdawi also shows us what not to do in her pages about Elizabeth Holmes, the founder/CEO of a smoke-and-mirrors medical-diagnostic company who has been convicted of defrauding investors and sentenced to 11 years and three months in prison. As Mahdawi lays out, Holmes adopted the characteristics of a male leader: individual brilliance, authoritarian control, unwavering self-belief, the right background and credentials, and masculinity. On that latter point, Holmes made relentless eye contact, spoke in an allegedly artificially low voice, and styled her clothing on Steve Jobs.
My own thoughts: most definitely blame Holmes for the fraud and any dodgy dealings. But otherwise, can you blame her for presenting herself as having characteristics of male leaders if she thought that’s what she needed to get ahead?
Changing The Narrative About What Makes A Good Leader
Is the narrative around leadership slowing starting to change? As Mahdawi writes, “It’s time we stopped pathologising femininity and recognise that the traits we associate with women – things like empathy and collaboration – are not weaknesses…. We need to elevate different role models and embrace a different, more feminine, style of leadership.”
As Mahdawi relays, a study shows that during the pandemic, people put greater importance on interpersonal skills, such as ‘inspires and motivates,’ ‘communicates powerfully’, ‘collaboration/teamwork’, and ‘relationship building’, all of which women rated higher on than men’. And of course, we’d love male leaders to think about how they might cultivate these qualities, and for people doing the hiring to look for these qualities as well.
“It has never been so obvious that our male-coded model of leadership isn’t working,” writes Mahdawi. “If we want a better world, then we need more men who act like Jacinda Ardern, not more women who act like Donald Trump. If we want a better world, then it’s time to woman up.”
How Do We Make Leadership Appeal To The Next Generation Of Female Leaders?
We need to show girls that you can be a great leader without taking on stereotypically male characteristics. Because we have a real problem here. In October, Guardian columnist Emma Beddington wrote a piece called ‘Girls Don’t Want To Be Leaders’.
“The #girlboss has lost her lustre,” Beddington writes. “A recent survey of nine- to 18-year-old girls reported that they rank ‘being a leader’ the lowest priority in a list of 17 attributes for future work. Girls, the report concludes, were ‘nearly three times as likely to prioritise being healthy and safe’ over being a leader – as you would hope – and ‘twice as likely to prioritise being respected than being a leader’. Gosh, – it’s a shame those things don’t go hand in hand. (Beddington blames Boris Johnson for that.)
“What [else] has turned young women off leadership?” Beddington asks. “There’s the perennial ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ issue: women remain dramatically underrepresented as CEOs and on boards, and Covid bulletproofed the glass ceiling. A survey quoted by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic in his cathartically titled book Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? found that 92% of Americans couldn’t name a female leader in tech, and a quarter of the remaining 8% offered ‘Alexa’ or ‘Siri’. The Rekyjavik index, measuring attitudes towards women in leadership in G7 countries, hasn’t improved since 2019, with the most recent report concluding ‘deeply rooted views on female leadership are hard to shift’.”
To those who think something along the lines of ‘oh those feminine characteristics are nice to have but the traditionally male characteristics are what make real leaders’? Beddington points out that “a meta-analysis of research on the topic, shows women’s leadership strategies are more effective than men’s. They have more flexible and creative approaches to problem-solving, are fairer and more objective with subordinates, communicate more effectively and get more respect.”
So how can we rethink and reprioritise the characteristics we expect leaders to have? Firstly, let’s talk to our daughters and other girls in our life about how there’s more than one way to be a leader. Let’s have these conversations with friends, family members and colleagues, even if we think people might disagree with us. Let’s try to influence the people who are doing the hiring and promoting so that they reward people who display qualities like those of Jacinda: Kind, but strong. Empathetic, but decisive. Optimistic, but focused.