27 September 2023

Female first: The leadership lessons men can learn from women

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Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Cindy Gallop* say instead of encouraging women to act like male leaders, we should be asking men to emulate women.

Although there is a great deal of public interest in ensuring more women become leaders, too many suggested solutions are founded on the misconception that women ought to emulate men.

As we have argued before, the real problem is not a lack of competent females; it is too few obstacles for incompetent males, which explains the surplus of overconfident, narcissistic, and unethical men in charge.

As a consequence, gender differences in leadership effectiveness (what it takes to perform well) are out of sync with gender differences in leadership emergence (what it takes to make it to the top).

Indeed, research shows that the prevalence of male senior leaders is not a product of superior leadership talent in men.

Rather, large studies indicate that gender differences in leadership talent are either non-existent or they actually favour women.

Instead of encouraging women to act like male leaders (many of whom are incompetent), we should be asking men to adopt some of the more effective leadership behaviours commonly found in women.

Here are some critical leadership lessons that most men can learn from the average woman.

Don’t lean in when you’ve got nothing to lean in about.

There is a trend of telling women to “lean in” to qualities like assertiveness, boldness, or confidence.

In men, such qualities can manifest as self-promotion, taking credit for others’ achievements, and acting in aggressive ways.

Since there has never been a strong correlation between leaning in and being good at something — especially for men — a better option would be to stop falling for people who lean in when they lack the talents to back it up.

In a logical world, we would promote people into leadership roles when they are competent rather than confident, vetting them for their expertise, track record, and relevant leadership competencies.

Know your own limitations.

We live in a world that celebrates self-belief, but it is far more important to have self-awareness.

And often there is a conflict between the two.

For instance, awareness of your limitations (flaws and weaknesses) is incompatible with skyrocketing levels of self-belief, and the only reason to be utterly devoid of self-doubt and insecurities is delusion.

Although women are not as insecure as they are often portrayed to be, studies do show that they are generally less overconfident than men.

This is good news because it enables them to understand how people see them and gives them the capacity to spot gaps between where they want to be and where they actually are.

Motivate through transformation.

Academic studies show that women are more likely to lead through inspiration, transforming people’s attitudes and beliefs, and aligning people with meaning and purpose than men are.

Since transformational leadership is linked to higher levels of team engagement, performance, and productivity, it is a critical path to improving leaders’ performance.

If men spent more time trying to win people’s hearts and souls and nurturing a change in beliefs rather than behaviours, they would be better leaders.

Put your people ahead of yourself.

It’s very hard to turn a group of people into a high-performing team when your main focus is yourself.

People who see leadership as a glorified career destination and individual accomplishment are too self-centred to foster their teams’ wellbeing and unlock their subordinates’ potential.

Because men are generally more self-focused than women, they are more likely to lead in a narcissistic and selfish way.

Don’t command; empathise.

The notion that someone who is not kind and caring can lead effectively is at odds with reality.

Twenty-first century leadership demands that leaders establish an emotional connection with their followers, and that is arguably the only reason to expect leaders to avoid automation.

Workers crave the validation, appreciation, and empathy that only humans — not machines — can provide.

Men can learn a lot about how to do this effectively by emulating women.

Focus on elevating others.

Female leaders have been proven to be more likely to coach, mentor, and develop their direct reports than male leaders.

They are true talent agents, using feedback and direction to help people grow.

This means being less transactional and more strategic in their relationship with employees, and it also includes the openness to hire people who are better than themselves, because their egos are less likely to stand in the way.

Don’t say you’re “humbled”. Be humble.

We have been asking for humble leaders, but we keep gravitating toward ones who are overconfident and narcissistic.

There are well-established gender differences in humility, and they favour women.

Not all women are humble, of course, but selecting leaders on humility would result in more female than male leaders.

Humility is essential to being a great leader.

Does reading this upset you?

Ask yourself why.

If you’re a man, does this make you feel that there’s a campaign against white males and toxic masculinity and that angry feminism is on the rise?

That reaction is getting in the way of your learning from women what you can do to make yourself more successful.

If you’re a woman, do you reject the idea that women are generally more likely than men to display feminine traits?

That’s exactly the reason the average woman has more potential for leadership than the average man.

The only controversial aspect of our views is the notion that increasing female representation in leadership would augment rather than reduce meritocracy.

The best gender equality intervention is to focus on equality of talent and potential — and that only happens when we have gender-equal leadership to enable men to learn different leadership approaches from women as much as women have always been told to learn leadership approaches from men.

* Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is Chief Talent Scientist at ManpowerGroup, and Professor of Business Psychology at University College. He tweets at @drtcp. Cindy Gallop is the founder and CEO of IfWeRanTheWorld.

This article first appeared at hbr.org.

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