Masculine or Feminine?
by Robert B. Denhardt
Director of Leadership Programs, Price School of Public Policy
University of Southern California
Question: There’s been a lot of discussion lately about whether men or women make better leaders. What’s your response?
Bob – Many years ago, Jan Perkins and I wrote an article for the Public Administration Review that asked whether the rising tide of women in positions of management and leadership would change those fields – or whether those same women would be changed by their experience and the traditional leadership model would prevail. That same question has been raised again in a variety of books and articles over the last year or so, many probably stimulated by Sheryl Sandberg’s highly publicized book Lean In.
One article reported on a worldwide survey that asked respondents what they thought were the most important skills and characteristics of leaders, then asked which of those characteristics were associated with a feminine perspective and which were associated with a masculine perspective.
The first finding was that people who are demonstrate collaboration, flexibility, selflessness, and are ready to share credit were likely to be the most successful leaders – and that these were all considered feminine qualities. Some masculine qualities, like resilience and decisiveness, were on the list of positives but further down, while others like ego and pride, were all the way at the bottom of the list (Fast Company, May 13, 2013).
A similar article offered seven most important characteristics of today’s leader, including
• Empathy – Being sensitive to the thoughts and feelings of others
• Vulnerability: Owning up to one’s limitations and asking for help
• Humility: Seeking to serve others and to share credit
• Inclusiveness: Soliciting and listening to many voices
• Generosity: Being liberal with time, contacts, advice, support
• Balance: Giving life, as well as work, it’s due
• Patience: Taking a long term view (Inc., June 13, 2012)
While we can question whether these surveys convey an accurate picture of leadership today, certainly most folks would acknowledge that effective leadership is increasingly being “feminized.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that women are better leaders than men. Rather it means that people showing these more traditionally feminine traits – and these could be men as well as women – are likely to be more successful in their leadership roles. It doesn’t appear to be a matter of gender but rather one of style.
In an earlier post, I wrote that leadership styles need to change with the times, with cultural history. “To be a better leader, you have to relate to the particular time and culture in which you live. That time and that culture are constantly changing. And your leadership must change as well. In fact, the best leaders are those who can match their personal growth and development with the changing world around them.”
Most men who occupy top positions in business, governments, and nonprofits – and they are still mostly men – entered their first jobs in an era dominated by top-down hierarchical practices and the tough, masculine traits associated with them. But time and culture march on. Today neither men nor women employees are likely to respond well to that traditional masculine model. They don’t want to be bossed around, regulated in their behavior, or told what to do. Wise leaders, both men and women, will see the evolving set of expectations and adopt many of the more feminine characteristics listed above.
In this, women probably have a little head start, but we all know women managers who adopted the most heavy-handed masculine traits as they rose up the corporate ladder. If they can adapt in one way, men can surely adapt in the other.
When Jan and I wrote our article over thirty years ago, and asked whether women would change the workplace or be changed by it, we expected to know the answer by now. But we don’t. Cultural change takes a long time. And, of course, there are other variables at play. The environment of business and government is changing in ways that support new styles of leadership that, for example, require more flexibility and less ego.
Both men and women leaders will have to be attentive to those changes and the changes in leadership they will demand. At this point, however, we can say that whether it’s the influence of more women in the workplace or whether it’s influence of changes in the environment, a more feminine model of leadership seems to be emerging. Leaders of all types should take notice.
Robert Denhardt is the Director of Leadership Programs in the Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California (USC) and Director of the Executive Master of Leadership program at USC. He is the author of a dozen books on leadership and management, including, The Dance ofLeadership (with Janet Denhardt), Book: Just Plain Good Management, and Book: The Pursuit of Significance.