Emilia Clarke as Daenarys Targaryan, Game of Thrones

Leading While Female

When it comes to leadership — corporate, political or even fictional — we are suffering no shortage of male bravado. Lately, a new style of leadership is starting to blossom. And she is decidedly female. From the boardroom and Congress, to Westeros and leaders across the globe, women are not only ascending to positions of power, but also coming to realize that we no longer need to emulate men to be good leaders.

In fact, we are better served to behave like women.

Studies show that qualities most commonly associated with women — Humility, Collaboration, Authenticity, Vulnerability, and Empathy — are at the top of the list of the most desired traits in a leader. The latest conventional wisdom of TED-talking business gurus is likewise grounded in advice about “soft skills.” Simon Sinek, in his essay “We Need More Leaders” writes, “[e]verything about being a leader is like being a parent. It is about committing to the well-being of those in our care and having a willingness to make sacrifices to see their interests advanced so that they may carry our banner long after we are gone.” And while I know many great Dads who are generous in their parenting, when it comes to self-sacrifice for people in our care, Mothers clearly own the throne.

But this story is not entirely new. In their book The Athena Doctrine, John Gerzema and Michael D’Antonio announced that we may be reaching the end of the hyper masculine era of leadership. Based on a survey of 64,000 participants, they discovered that traditionally feminine qualities were more highly valued in positions of leadership. Well, hallelujah.

But wait. They published their study in 2013.

While women have surely gained momentum in the wake of our most stunning defeat, we still have a long way to go. Women heads of state still only account for 6% of total global leaders, women fortune 500 CEOs are a dismal 5% of the total (a notable decline from our all-time high of a whopping 6%) , and Jon Snow seems to be gaining ground in Westeros.

What happened to their prediction? If stereo-typically female qualities are what make great leaders, why is there still such a jarring imbalance of power?

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic may have the answer. In his new book, Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (And How to Fix It), he explores the correlation between over-confidence and charisma and leadership. His assertion is simple: people have a hard time distinguishing between confidence and competence. The result is the persistence of poor leadership. He notes, “because we (people in general) commonly misinterpret displays of confidence as a sign of competence, we are fooled into believing that men are better leaders than women. In other words, when it comes to leadership, 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, and that these occur much more frequently in men than in women.”

So how do we fix it?

[1] Elevate the standards of leadership

Chamorro-Premuzic insists that he is not making a case for preferential treatment for women. Instead, he is suggesting that we should be making it harder for terrible men to get to the top, rather than focusing solely on removing the hurdles for women. It’s time to hold bad leaders accountable to their failures, and celebrate the qualities that lead to collaboration, teamwork and growth.

[2] Set clear, quantifiable goals for leaders and measure them

Rather than going with our gut, which is notoriously bad at selecting leaders, we need to rely on performance metrics instead. Now that we’ve identified the qualities that are aligned with good leadership, we need to establish metrics to measure them.

[3] Be aware of the over-confidence bias

As it turns out, we cannot trust our instincts. Be wary of comments and opinions that are purely subjective, qualitative and seem overly drawn to someone’s magnetism versus their track record or skills. Chamorro-Premuzic suggests interviewing those employed by leadership candidates, in addition to the candidate themselves. Their feedback may be telling.

Despite recent gains, women seeking leadership equity still have a high mountain to climb. It is time we lean in to our feminine strengths — compassion, empathy, and collaboration — while fighting the urge to champion hubris over humility. It is time we lead.


This story was originally published on May 7th, 2019 on LinkedIn.

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