‘While the world has been distracted by the noise of those resistant to change, change has been happening anyway’. These are the words that start a video about women in power that was sent to me recently. The video, which has gone viral, goes on to list all the current female heads of state, from Germany to Finland, New Zealand and Singapore. It’s truly inspiring, particularly as leadership has historically been (and, in most cases, continues to be) defined in terms of male stereotypes.
Power is still more associated with men, than women.
Which makes a recent study, that shows that countries with female leaders have suffered 6 times fewer confirmed COVID-19 deaths than those with governments led by men, so interesting.
It seems that female leaders have been far more effective at managing this unprecedented crisis than their male counterparts, ‘flattening the curve’ more successfully and reducing the number of days with ‘confirmed deaths’. As a real-time leadership test, played out in front of a global audience, COVID has rendered traditional experience and expertise ineffective, driving change in ways that we could not easily have imagined.
So, what does this mean for leadership?
It would be easy to claim that women make better leaders than men.
Women are socialized from a young age to be more empathetic than men. We’ve had to develop resilience, pragmatism and resourcefulness as we’ve had to work harder, longer and smarter to overcome broad cultural bias and prove that we’re capable.
Compelling evidence from the Harvard Business Review shows that women in leadership roles are perceived to be slightly more effective than men across almost every functional business area. Women excel in taking initiative, self-development, driving results and displaying integrity. One of the unintended consequences of sexism is that it elevates the quality of female leaders, who often end up being more qualified and talented than their male counterparts by the time they’re selected for leadership roles.
But I believe that this is only part of the story.
Countries (and companies) who elect female leaders tend to have a more balanced representation of both sexes (or greater gender parity) across all levels than those with a predominance of male leaders. Instead of the traditional ‘command and control’ approach, more ‘gender-balanced’ societies support greater diversity in thinking and are more likely to have leadership driven by ostensibly ‘feminine’ qualities – like empathy, compassion, communication and collaboration.
When leaders are more empathetic, they have a broader understanding of the issues faced by all – which leads to more robust decision-making and the adoption of more inclusive, innovative and courageous solutions and policies. This, in turn, makes people feel supported and heard, making them more likely to be productive and satisfied with life (and more accepting of the hard decisions that have needed to be taken in this pandemic).
If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that we need a new type of leadership to face down our many challenges. Our pressing issues - climate change, poverty, inequality, scarcity of resources and lack of affordable healthcare – are not going to be solved with old-style homogenous leadership.
We’re also not going to get anywhere if we continue to reject (either consciously or unconsciously) 50% of our available talent for leadership roles.
If watching strong female leaders navigate successfully through this crisis leads to a change in the narrative of what a ‘strong’ leader looks like and qualities like empathy, intelligence, humility and integrity become important benchmarks for leadership, we will elevate the overall quality of our leaders, moving them from ‘leaders’ to ‘great leaders’ because, as Rosalynn Carter said,
‘a leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be’.
Let’s work together to get where we ought to be.