I was recently speaking at a FlexCareers event on the subject of Emotional Intelligence and one of the things I said that seemed to take the audience by surprise was that, in my opinion, times have probably never been so good for female leaders.
As I said this, I could see a range of expressions in the room. Everything from wide-eyed, open minded interest, through to looks of disbelief.
This did not surprise me. Nearly all statistics on women in leadership seem to indicate a very different story and of course, these statistics are true and of concern. However, there is a definite upside to being a female leader in today’s world. In fact, this upside is a major competitive advantage if put to good use.
So what is this upside that no one seems to talk about?
Well, studies of successful global businesses show that the leaders who run them display characteristics and traits that are more synonymous with females, not males.
Today’s consistently high performing companies are those where the leaders drive organisational culture based on high levels of interpersonal connection, collaboration and engagement. Each of which are proven to drive corporate environments where high performance is triggered more by trust, loyalty and relationships rather than technical competence, which is now taken as a given. These cultures result from leaders who display high levels of empathy – a right brain function more traditionally associated with females than males.
What is empathy?
In my experience, it is probably one of the most misunderstood and underestimated skills in business today. Empathy is purely the ability to see the world through another person’s eyes. Contrary to popular opinion, empathy has nothing to do with being “warm and fuzzy”. It is about understanding the needs of people and what makes them tick. And it Is through having and understanding this additional information that better decisions can be made on how to solve problems. And for most businesses, problems will involve people, be they employees or customers. Empathy is the golden skill that allows a company to design and deliver products and services that people want and will buy. It is also the key to motivating employees to go above and beyond their contractual obligations.
Interestingly enough, none of this comes from capability and technical skill. In today’s market, technical skill and capability simply gets you into the game, whereas your ability to understand what makes people tick is what will differentiate you in the workplace.
So if we all agree that women have the same capability as men to be technically competent in their field, when this is used in combination with their natural ability to understand others and empathise, I believe this is the time where women will come into their own and start to excel in the workplace.
What other skills do successful women leaders display?
The following three traits are all present in successful female leaders.
1. Mental resilience and capacity to cope
A leader with these traits has the ability to override any negative emotions which may occur. And the better they are managed, the more resilient they become. Mental resilience often comes down to two things. The first is a self awareness of any hot buttons and triggers that can negatively impact your own performance. The second is your explanatory styles and self talk. Good leaders have an ability to understand the role emotion plays in the workplace and this often gives them a better perspective on things. They are able to rise above unnecessary emotion in order to make objective fact-based decisions. This prevents emotional knee-jerk decision making and reduces the likelihood of anger or resentment in the workplace.
2. Multitasking/Organisation skills
This will come as no surprise as society seems to associate multitasking and organisation skills with women. From my experience, women do not rise to the top if they are disorganised. Disorganisation inevitably leads to missed opportunities and the lack of critical information needed for decision making and problem solving, with the end result being frustration in others. So if women are perceived to be more organised, then it positions them well to manage.
However, the downside to this is that whilst multitasking seems to be a necessary skill in the corporate world, it can come at a cost. More and more, I see women spreading themselves too thinly in their attempts to get everything done until they get to a point where they become ineffective and stressed, which are typically the precursors to burnout.
Fairness is key in business today. Not because it’s “nice” but because fairness is directly linked to performance and productivity levels. Most leaders do not understand that fairness is a critical factor to unlocking discretionary effort. This is the desire, choice and willingness of staff to go over and above their normal efforts. Leaders must understand that fairness plays a major part in the psyche of most people and is directly linked to motivation. Furthermore, leaders must understand the difference between a person’s perception of fairness and reality. Men will typically focus on just the reality, whereas women will do this but will also take into account an individual’s perspective, be it wrong or right. This then enables the female leader to make more informed decisions around what needs to be done to resolve any issues.
So, if these traits are more synonymous with women, where does this leave men?
Well of course, men have the mental capacity to match a woman’s skills in all of these areas. They can multitask, understand emotions and feelings and navigate the murky waters of perception versus reality.
However if it is indeed true that men are less likely to have this ability naturally – then it will all come down to their mindset and their choice to do these things – or not.
Anna-Lucia Mackay is an award-winning educator, speaker and writer in the fields of management and education.
Non Executive Chairperson | Award Winning Management Educator I Telstra Business Woman of the Year Finalist 2012 I Best Selling Author of The Four Mindsets – How to Influence, Motivate and Lead a High Performance Team (Wiley 2015).
Other Specialist Areas: Emotional Intelligence, Management & Leadership Education, Organisational Design, Transformation and Change, Learning & Development Strategy.