The pandemic has cast a sharp light on the role of women in leadership. National leaders such as Angela Merkel of Germany and Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand were active in fighting the coronavirus before many other countries. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan led her state to take early and persistent action to slow the spread of COVID-19.
A recent article by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman in Harvard Business Review offers evidence that women leaders are better in times of crisis. In fact, according to a review of women leaders’ engagement scores, women outpointed men by six points: 55.2 to 49.2.
Based on an analysis of 360-degree reviews during the pandemic, women also scored better on most leadership competencies. They ranked higher in initiative, learning agility, inspiration/motivation, development of others and relationship building, among others. In risk-taking, women had a one-point edge.
As Zenger and Folkman write, employees “want leaders who are able to pivot and learn new skills; who emphasize employee development even when times are tough; who display honesty and integrity; and who are sensitive and understanding of the stress, anxiety, and frustration that people are feeling. Our analysis shows that these are traits that are more often being displayed by women.”
What these findings assert is something that Harvard professor and author Meg Wheatley has written: “Leadership is a series of behaviors rather than a role for heroes.”
Even while women excel in crisis management, it’s men who are expected to lead, often with less than satisfactory results. And there is a reason for that.
“For too long too few women have been under-represented at the C-suite and senior executive levels, so finding colleagues to discuss your experiences with to co-create solutions to them has been difficult for women at best,” says Alaina Love, former senior HR executive who is a consultant. “This is due to both representation and mindset. Over the past decade, I’ve observed a burgeoning willingness among women to support the growth and development of other female co-workers in a way that overshadows the competitive mindset-driven behaviors of the 20 years prior.”
What women can do
Change begins with individuals. “First, get very clear in your own mind exactly what you would like your next step to be and why that appeals to you,” says Sally Helgesen, author of “How Women Rise” and an authority on women in leadership. “For example, I want to be the next head of our customer relations unit because I have some innovative ideas that I think would help us do a better job. You want to know what those ideas are, of course, and be able to articulate them concisely so you can build your case.”
The willingness to stretch yourself is imperative. Shannon Polson, author of “The GRIT Factor” and a former Army helicopter pilot, says, “It’s important for women leaders to be willing to step outside of their comfort zones, take on stretch assignments and take risks to demonstrate audacity and competence. Doing the work is often not enough, however. Women leaders should be willing to speak up and be heard in important discussions, even when it is difficult.”
Tammy Jersey, an executive coach and leadership consultant who works with women leaders, concurs. “Share your views with precision and conviction — in a way that helps advance the conversation, which might mean you are redirecting the groupthink. Avoid qualifiers in your speech, because these often suggest a lack of confidence.”
“Women starting their careers are often advised to find a mentor or sponsor as a vehicle for advancing their careers,” Love adds. “While this is sound guidance, I suggest to women at all levels that they find other women to support and advocate for in alignment with that person’s capabilities and contributions. Pay it forward, and watch as the gift is reciprocated.”
Jersey advises women to “get results” by leveraging their confidence and being more collaborative. “Leaders will respect you if you are helping move the business forward.”
Jersey adds, “Speak up when you have a point of view, even if it is to reinforce what someone else said.”
Helgesen advises thinking ahead. “Consider what skills you probably need to position yourself for the job and then decide on a plan to start building them. And also consider who could be helpful to you in positioning yourself for this position.”
Bottom line, Jersey advises, “Be candid and authentic. And be willing to be vulnerable. This can take the form of admitting that you learned something from what someone else shared. Say thank you for the new perspective. Also, be willing to adapt your views if you truly believe that someone else has a better view than the one you started with. Admit that openly.”
“Courage,” writes Brene Brown in “Daring Greatly,” “starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.” Women who assert their leadership do so bravely, and the people they lead will benefit considerably.
John Baldoni is a globally recognized executive coach and leadership educator. Inc.com ranked John a Top 50 Leadership Expert and Top 100 leadership speaker. Trust Across America awarded John its Lifetime Achievement award for Trust and Global Gurus ranked him No. 9 on its list of Top 30 leadership experts. John is the author of 14 books, including GRACE: A Leader’s Guide to a Better Us.