Several recent articles have described that highly effective responses to COVID have been put in place by the governments of Germany, Denmark, Iceland, Hong Kong, and New Zealand. Governments all run by women. These articles lead me to wonder whether women might be approaching the challenges of this crisis differently than their male counterparts.
What can we learn from their approaches to this COVID crisis?
As a start in thinking about this question, I studied a Pew Research Center poll (SEP 2018) that sampled 4500 Americans on their views of leadership traits and how they intersect with gender. One of the biggest takeaways is that most believe that men and women have different leadership styles, but that one approach is not better than the other. This is reassuring to know that most Americans think men and women are equally capable vis-a-vis the essential traits of leadership. Things start to get more interesting when you look at the specific qualities and competencies of leadership among those who see a gender difference. Women are seen as having an advantage over their male counterparts on the following competencies: being compassionate and empathetic; working out compromises; maintaining a tone of civility and respect; creating a safe and respectful workplace; valuing people from different backgrounds; and providing mentorship to young employees.
On the surface, these descriptors seem like yesterday’s news. Many people believe that women are better at “emotional and social stuff” than men – compassion, compromise, inclusion, support, etc. But there is more to the story. The survey is striking in what it doesn’t show. It doesn’t show differences between men and women in their perceived competence, their ability to deal with complex issues, their comfort and confidence in running large organizations, or their abilities to persuade and stand up for what they believe. It may be that what makes many women leaders different is that they are more practiced at shifting back and forth on the essential dimensions of leadership. Think about Freddie Mercury, the iconic lead singer of Queen. He is said to have had a five-octave vocal range, moving smoothly from a throaty baritone to a high soprano. As a result of this agility, he is regarded as one of the greatest rock lead singers of all time. This ability to move easily from one end of an essential quality to the other end is key to great performance.
Simply put, the most effective leaders use a wide range of approaches.
They are neither predominantly “nice” nor “tough” (or pick your favorite leadership dimension), rather they fluidly slide back and forth based on situational context. Those that get stuck on one end of a dimension (e.g., either nice or tough), or rely on a narrow range of behaviors, are less effective. What stands out in this survey is not that both men and women are seen as competent, smart, and knowledgeable, but that women are seen as having a broader repertoire of responses to draw upon (i.e., compassion, compromise, inclusion, etc.). Women have learned to shift between the leader who expects high performance and the leader who engages people and builds teams. Between the leader who projects credibility and authority and the leader who encourages collaboration and participation. Between the leader who drives initiatives forward and the leader who identifies win-win strategies. For numerous reasons, many women seem to make these shifts more easily resulting in a broader range of approaches and more effective outcomes.