The idea that women make better leaders than men is gaining ground. Post-heroic leadership is about collaboration, relationships and nurturing talent. Men, it is claimed, are too individualist, competitive and aggressive, too lacking in feminine interpersonal skills to lead in this new arena.
A close look at what it takes to show leadership, however, suggests that some masculine traits are essential in executive roles and that a blend of masculine and feminine is better than too much of either.
Some men have a mix of masculine aggressiveness and feminine interpersonal skills. Conversely, Margaret Thatcher had more masculine competitiveness and decisiveness than many of her male rivals. So, it's less about men versus women than masculine versus feminine traits or cultures.
Leadership as executive role
There are two ways of defining leadership. First, there is being in charge of a group. Second, there is challenging the status quo to promote a better way as Martin Luther King Jr. did.
People with feminine traits (men or women) want to bond with others, to belong, be accepted and foster group harmony. With this set of values, being overly competitive or aggressive risks group rejection or disharmony. A core masculine drive is to differentiate self from others, hence competitiveness. The risk for the masculine is not group rejection but failure to achieve goals, often involving beating others.
The argument that women are better leaders than men cites the need for executives to foster relationships with employees and other stakeholders. There is also a growing focus on followership recognizing the greater need for team work.
Some pundits define leadership in relational terms. The claim is that because leadership is of necessity a relationship between leaders and followers, relationship skills are paramount. This is consistent with the current emphasis on emotional intelligence as well as the shift from heroic to post-heroic, engaging models of leadership.
In Enlightened Power: How Women are Transforming the Practice of Leadership, Barbara McMahon states: "In the new form of leadership, it is no longer doctrine that creates a following; it is dialogue. It's more valuable to be able to engage than to influence. Command and control has shifted to collaboration and empowerment."
Further: "You must go directly to your team and ask them for their perspective. How do they see themselves in this change? What might hold them back? What would make them willing to move forward?"
No one can argue with the value of relating in a more engaging fashion, but making feminine relational skills so central to leadership overlooks the competitive environment in which businesses operate. To succeed in this context, companies and their employees need to be competitive, to have a drive to win.
The same is true in sports, which is why so many executives use sports metaphors to motivate employees. If you were coaching a football team how important would it be to cultivate a competitive spirit in your players?
On the other hand, if you were taking a group of boy scouts or girl guides on an expedition, you would have the luxury of fostering collaboration as no competition with other groups is involved.
In a competitive context, executives need to be aggressive role models, speak in competitive terms and verbally attack the competition. Metrics that show a business how it is doing in relation to competitors can motivate greater effort just as it does in sports.
While masculine competitiveness is thus an essential trait for senior executives, they could be more effective if they had enough feminine skills to foster collaboration, build productive relationships and nurture talent.
Leadership as challenging the status quo
A different concept of leadership focuses on challenging the status quo to promote a new direction independent of position - think of Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.
Green leaders who advocate environment-friendly policies also challenge the status quo to get people they don't manage to abandon gas-guzzling cars and adopt greener practices. Then there are front-line knowledge workers who show leadership bottom-up when they promote new products to their bosses.
These examples of leadership promote a better way. They don't manage the people who implement their proposals. The essential trait to show such leadership is the courage to challenge existing practices.
This type of leadership also requires masculine traits. As noted above, the fundamental masculine drive is self-differentiation. Young men are naturally inclined to display youthful rebelliousness to test authority. Some channel their rebelliousness in unproductive ways, while others show leadership by challenging existing practices in a constructive manner.
Rebelliousness, however, runs counter to the feminine drive to bond with people, to win group acceptance and to build relationships. Challenging the status quo risks what is most important to the basic feminine drive.
Women who aspire to show leadership by challenging the status quo and promoting a better way need a fair dose of the masculine trait of wanting to change the world at the risk of group rejection.
The inexorable feminization of business
Regardless of whether more women make it to the top, organizations are becoming more feminine. There is now more emphasis on relationship skills, emotional intelligence, the ability to nurture talent, listening skills, collaboration and partnership. These skills are essential for success for both male and female executives.
This move is an inevitable result of complexity and the rise of knowledge work. No individualistic executive can hope to succeed in a complex arena without multiple inputs. Further, intelligent knowledge workers will not hang around unless they are engaged in plotting business direction.
While business is externally competitive, the internal competition for senior jobs also rewards individual success more than facilitative skills. The excessive focus on "me", however, is getting in the way of employee engagement.
So, male or female?
The argument that women might be better leaders than men over-emphasizes feminine relationship-building skills to the exclusion of masculine competitive instincts. As with most either-or pendulum swings, the truth falls somewhere in the middle.
In any case, this issue should focus, not on men versus women, but on organizational culture. At that level, a mixture of feminine and masculine traits are required. But there is no doubt that we are in the midst of an unstoppable shift to more feminine cultures.