By Leigh Buchanan | Inc. magazine
Control is a mirage. The most effective leaders right now–men and women–are those who embrace traits once considered feminine: Empathy. Vulnerability. Humility. Inclusiveness. Generosity. Balance. Patience.
What a perfect day to meet up with John Gerzema for a conversation about leadership styles. I have come to the Manhattan offices of Young & Rubicam to discuss Gerzema’s new book, The Athena Doctrine, which argues that traits classically considered feminine are essential to effective leadership today.
By coincidence, the two weeks since I scheduled the appointment have kicked up a dust storm of news about female leaders behaving “like men” and male leaders behaving “like women.” Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook exhorted women to power up the career ladder with the same obduracy as men. Marissa Mayer weighed empathy against a full parking lot at Yahoo and chose the latter. Andrew Mason reaped kudos for the candor, humility, and vulnerability expressed in his resignation letter from Groupon. He even made a joke about his weight.
You’ve seen the studies about companies with gender-diverse boards outperforming male bastions, and about women hedge-fund managers trouncing their male counterparts. In 2011, the leadership development firm Zenger Folkman surveyed more than 7,200 business people about leaders in their organizations. Women were rated as better overall leaders than their male counterparts. The more exalted the position, the wider the gap.
So, sure, more women leaders would be great. But this is not a story about women leaders. It’s a story about good leaders. And our understanding of what good leaders do is being shaped by a number of new studies, the most intriguing of which comes from Gerzema, Young & Rubicam’s chief insights officer and executive chairman of Y&R’s BAV Consulting division.
A few years ago, Gerzema and his collaborator, Michael D’Antonio, wrote a book called Spend Shift, which described a postcrisis economy fueled by values rather than greed. As Gerzema made the public-speaking rounds, his audiences pointed out that the entrepreneurs, business leaders, and others profiled in the book evinced traits commonly considered feminine.
Gerzema manages the world’s largest database of consumers, and so is uniquely positioned to kick theoretical tires. Intrigued by the observations about gender, he surveyed 64,000 people in 13 countries on how they felt about government, the economy, and the (mostly male) leaders pulling the levers. Substantial majorities waxed critical of institutions and pessimistic about their quality of life.
Two-thirds said the world would be a better place if men thought more like women. Gerzema also asked consumers to characterize 125 traits as male, female, or neutral and to indicate those most desirable in modern leaders. Topping the list of most desirable traits were patience, expressiveness, intuition, flexibility, empathy, and many other traits identified by respondents as feminine.
The Holy Grail in business today is engagement: employees’ energy, enthusiasm, and commitment to their companies. Engagement has a powerful effect not only on productivity but also on profitability and customer metrics, numerous studies show. But it’s not something you can buy. The most recent Towers Watson Global Workforce Study identifies as key to engagement an employer who “promotes physical, emotional, and social well-being.” At a time when CEOs are demanding more from diminished, anxious work forces, they must make employees feel part of something and demonstrate their personal concern and support.
“Whether you’re talking about corporate America or Silicon Valley, it’s still a man’s world with masculine structures and women conforming to those ideals,” says Gerzema. “Feminine traits and values are a new form of innovation. They are an untapped form of competitive advantage.”
We have progressed from command-and-control (roughly through the 1980s) to empower-and-track (the 1990s to mid-2000s) to connect-and-nurture (today). Increasingly, the chief executive role is taking its place among the caring professions. It takes a tender person to lead a tough company.
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