27 September 2023

Female lead: The surprising leadership lesson in the COVID-19 crisis

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Joan Michelson* says the leadership qualities we need most in a crisis such as now are those that studies show are associated with the way women lead.

As we move through this coronavirus crisis — doing meetings by video chat with our kids and pets in the background or our laps, caring less about how we look on camera or the backgrounds we show — we are increasing our appreciation for authenticity, communication, trust, relationships, verifiable facts and being prepared.

It turns out these are the same criteria investing experts use to rate the category of stocks that have been outperforming the S&P 500 during this crisis.

They’re stocks with high environmental, social and governance (ESG) ratings, and this correlation is giving us important insights into what makes a great leader.

Employers with strong ESG ratings by definition have policies in place to: a) protect the environment; b) care about their employees, communities and customers, and maintain a high level of women in leadership; and c) hold leaders accountable through rigorous management systems.

The leadership skills ESG ratings reflect as the most effective are: collaboration; creativity; resourcefulness; being proactive; preventing crises or keeping them from getting worse; communicating; listening; strategic planning; authenticity; building trust; transparency; managing ambiguity; relationship-building; self-control; teamwork; focus on facts; responsibility.

The more people trust you, the more they will offer solutions and resources.

The more people feel you genuinely have their best interests in mind, the more they will be willing to offer ideas and help.

As Christopher Cordaro, Chief Investment Officer of RegentAtlantic, told me, organisations that demonstrate through their policies and procedures that they care about their employees have more productive, more resourceful and more innovative teams — participation that is crucial in a crisis.

Their policies and practices protect employees in the workplace — a vital factor in any crisis, especially an infectious virus like COVID-19.

Organisations with high ESG ratings also have developed effective crisis management plans, Cordaro explained.

We’re learning how much those plans — which we always put off doing — really matter when there is a crisis.

We crave honest, factual and timely information and someone to take full responsibility for a crisis.

We see how important resourcefulness is and how a crisis obliterates boundaries, borders and biases and how quickly we can discard “the way we’ve always done it” when the proverbial s*** hits the fan.

We crave someone to take responsibility, do whatever it takes and promptly, and to respect our needs and frustrations.

What do these leadership qualities look like?

These leadership qualities are also associated with women’s leadership styles.

That’s the surprising lesson in this crisis: The very leadership qualities we need right now — that we value and crave right now — are those that studies show are associated with the way women lead and why those organisations with more women leaders perform better across all metrics, including financially.

Because women have not traditionally held the reins of power, they are also natural innovators, as I discussed with Laura Liswood, Secretary-General of the Council of Women World Leaders.

Because women have not had access to the levers of authority, access to the funding and other resources, and the instant credibility that men have had, they have found creative, resourceful ways to get things done.

As Liswood put it, women have been in the “non-dominant” role, and as a result, developed strong work-around or innovation skills.

Interestingly for a crisis such as this, Liswood also told me that women on boards tend to be more prepared than their male counterparts, even to the point that other directors up their own game, and these boards perform better as a result.

Will our perception of ‘leadership’ change now?

Historically, qualities associated with women have been undervalued, causing women leaders to be undervalued.

I wonder whether the fact that the leadership qualities that are truly effective in this coronavirus pandemic crisis, which happen to typically be associated with women, will elevate how we perceive these qualities and women leaders going forward.

It’s a lesson we should take back to work with us.

* Joan Michelson is host of the Green Connections Radio podcast and a career coach. She tweets at @joanmichelson.

This article first appeared at www.forbes.com.

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