Female Leaders Shine in Crises – will this debias the lens through which they are seen?

The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity
William Butler Yeats

Male leaders stumble

Disasters and Crises show leaders at their best and worst. Some political leaders show their underlying strength, the ability to listen and a talent to rally the troops when decisions to act are taken. Others respond with arrogance, denialism, false assurances and unfounded assertions that the situation is entirely under control.

Donald Trump, the nominal leader of the free world has been confronted by three crises in recent months: his impeachment, Covid-19 and the racist killing of George Floyd.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, he has lost his nerve and displayed an abject lack of leadership in dealing with all three.

Similarly and disconcertingly  other male leaders of major powers, Putin in Russia, Boris Johnson in the UK and Bolsonaro in Brazil in dealing with the current pandemic have in turn been arrogant, dissolute and inept and have probably caused the needless deaths of some of their citizens.

By contrast, Jacinda Ardern, facing her first crisis was admirably resolute and calming in responding to the shooting in Christchurch. Her conduct won plaudits globally and promoted healing rather than division and upheaval.

The crisis of Covid-19

The monumental and fast-developing calamity brought about by Covid-19 has given us the rare opportunity to witness leadership capability across the globe in real time.

Four countries have been noteworthy for the exceptionally good performance of their leaders: Estonia, Iceland, New Zealand and Taiwan. All four have women political leaders, although only seven percent of world political leaders are female. In addition, Angela Merkel of Germany, Mette Frederiksen of Denmark, Sanna Marin of Finland and Erna Solberg of Norway have distinguished themselves in the resolute, and sometimes imaginative, ways they have acted in a period of profound uncertainty.

At the very least these instances demonstrate an unmistakeable thread of consistently competent female leadership which should put an end to the biased notion that women cannot lead.

What marks a leader in a crisis?

Is there any one vital leadership characteristic in a crisis which sets the effective leaders apart from those who fail?

Professor Gianpiero Petriglieri explores the vital leadership quality of

Is there any one vital leadership characteristic in a crisis which sets the effective leaders apart from those who fail?

Professor Gianpiero Petriglieri explores the vital leadership quality of Holding”  in a crisis.

“Holding describes the way a leader contains and interprets what is happening in times of uncertainty. It is that ability to calm in a time of distress and help to interpret when times and circumstances have engendered uncertainty.”

An article in Harvard Business Review posits that women leaders are clearly better exemplars of holding behaviour.The authors suggest that there are at least seven lessons that men can learn from women which, if they do, will make the men better and more effective leaders:

  • Don’t lean in when you’ve got nothing to lean about
  • Know your limitations
  • Put people ahead of yourself
  • Don’t command, empathise
  • Focus on elevating others
  • Motivate through transformation
  • Don’t say you’re “humbled”. Be humble.

This suggestion is consistent with evidence gathered by Symmetra over several years through deploying its online assessment tool, the Inclusive leadership Index measuring inclusion capability in leaders.

On seven out of twelve behaviours reflected in the graph above (those marked with an asterisk) female leaders score better than men and the difference is statistically significant. Some of the critical leadership “holding” behaviours such as showing empathy, putting others ahead of yourself, knowing your limitations and focusing on elevating others are common to both sets of data.

In light of all this evidence one would expect a fundamental change in perspective when evaluating female leadership capabilities which would stand women in good stead when the COVID-19 pandemic has cleared.

The future for women in the workplace

However, there is also a distinct possibility that women may emerge from this crisis worse off than before. More women may  lose  their jobs than men, more have and may continue to  be subjected to domestic violence while under lockdown and  more have been expected to shoulder the greater share of the caring responsibilities while children are away from school.

We are starting to emerge from the most drastic aspects of isolation and interruption to normal living. Work norms have been unceremoniously upended and discarded (some permanently). Many of our false pre-conceptions and prejudices have been exposed for what they are and our behaviour in some areas will surely change.

Australia is experiencing its first recession in 29 years and going forward the economy and many workplaces will look different. The opportunities to rebuild our societies and economies stronger and free of unnecessary shackles are there for the taking. Using the abilities of all our women will make Australia stronger and more prosperous. Is it too much to hope that organisations will look at women with talent, drive and ambition through a fresh lens and recognise that their leadership skills are not to be wasted?

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