This paper focuses on the claim that women require a different set of leadership skills to men if in the business world. In seeking to answer this question we explore a number of relevant academic theories and models. In particular, we consider the Centered Leadership Model developed by Joanna Barsch and colleagues at McKinsey and Company. Drawing on this model, we provide a critical analysis of views on the leadership skills required for women in business.
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Although there have been increasing numbers of women in MBA programmes since the 1970s, in 2011, only twelve of the Fortune 500 companies were run by women (CNN Money, 2011). The addition of women to leadership roles has flat lined (Helfat et al., 2006; Singh and Vinnicombe, 2006) and women are grossly under-represented in business as CEO’s, boards of directors and senior officers of public companies. Despite the fact that women are equally qualified and in many cases, outperform men (Francis and Case, 2006), women have a lower success rate of being promoted and the “glass ceiling” effect still prevails (Davies-Netzley, 2008). This under-representation of women in leadership positions has had severe consequences on performance pressures, lack of role models and attracting female talent (Furnham, 2005). Moreover, in today’s unstable and increasingly demanding business environment where traditional leadership styles are outdated (Werhane, 2007), there is an urgent need for more efficient and effective leaders. Topics on women and leadership have therefore experienced a resurgence of interest and new approaches on how to increase the number of women leaders have been proposed. Barsh, Cranston and Craske (2010) of McKinsey, for example, developed a model that focuses on the importance of cultivating women’s mindsets, values and tools and applying them as leadership skills in business contexts. This idea is known as the Centered Leadership Model.
This present essay aims to explore the Centered Leadership Model in regard to the assertion that women in business require a different set of leadership skills. The first of three sections will delve deeper into an understanding of the Centred Leadership Model, the second will critically review the assertion that women in business need to develop a different set of leadership skills and the third and concluding section will integrate findings across these sections to reach a tentative conclusion.
The centered leadership model
Rather than focusing on the glass ceilings facing women in business and organisational settings, the Centered Leadership model aims to increase the number of female leaders by pointing to the leadership skills that are advantageous. Specifically, the model revolves around the hypothesis that leaders can become more effective through a model of centered leadership. There are five interrelated dimensions that make up the centered leadership model: finding meaning in work, managing and sustaining energy, positively framing emotions such as stress, connecting and building relationships with those who can help you grow and engaging in risks. Each of these will be discussed in further detail.
The idea of finding meaning in the workplace is closely linked with a number of positive outcomes. Studies have shown, for example, that meaning in work translates into higher productivity, lower turnover, and a greater job satisfaction. At a deeper level, satisfaction in the workplace also translates into an overall sense of well-being (Seligman, 2004). The second dimension of the model considers the importance of prioritising activities and achieving a work/life balance to reduce burnout. For instance, research has shown that those who experience “flow” (a sense of deep engagement in activities) actually derive greater energy in work than those who a not have flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991).The way that individuals view the world and their experiences can dramatically shape their professional outcomes (Barsh, Cranston and Craske, 2008). However, studies have revealed that women are more prone to depression than men (Brizendine, 2006) and adopt different views of success and failure. Developmental research has found for example that when girls encounter failure, they are much more likely to lose their motivation than boys who can adapt more rapidly to failure circumstances (Dweck, 1986). Positive framing in women is therefore important. The fourth dimension refers to the importance of networks in the business environment. Granovetter (1973), for example, found that a network of “weak ties” (acquaintances) can build important connections between disparate groups and can bring about enormous benefits to individuals who are job-hunting. This idea is echoed by psychological research in which networks of board directors advantage men as they tend to build broader, shallower (i.e. weak tie) networks that give them a wider range of resources for gaining knowledge and professional opportunities (Baumeister and Bushman, 2010). Women’s networks on the other hand, tend to be considerably narrower and deeper than men’s networks (Barsh, Cranston & Craske, 2008). The centered leadership model highlights the importance of building strong networks and alliances.
The fifth and final dimension of centered leadership is engagement and the importance of risk-taking. Psychological research has linked a risk-taking approach to a greater sense of well-being compared to those who are risk-avoidant (Gilbert, 2006).Although this model has been shown to work equally for men, it was built to specifically meet the needs and experiences of women in business (Barsh, Cranston and Craske, 2010). In fact, it has enjoyed success in its applicability to leaders across the world. Barsh, Cranston and Lewis (2010) carried out a global survey and garnered responses from 2,498 executives. Respondents were required to indicate their level of agreement with a number of statements that represented different dimensions of the Centered Leadership Model. Their responses were then aggregated for each dimension. The results revealed that men and women were similar in the degree to which they practiced the dimensions of centered leadership and their life satisfaction. However, a greater number of women were found in the top percentile of the overall pool, supporting the idea that centered leadership is more geared towards women’s strengths.
The next section will draw on aspects of the centered leadership model as well as additional empirical data and critically discuss the assertion that women need a different set of leadership skills than men.
Women and leadership
Before launching into a discussion on women and leadership, it is necessary to understand the changes that have occurred in leadership. Until recently, the role of leaders was traditionally defined as “individuals who significantly influence the thoughts, behaviors and/or feelings of others” (Gardner and Laskin, 1995, p. 6). Leadership research based itself on this definition, focusing on the ways that a leader directs individuals and/or groups. However, in the last two decades, a globalised and flat world has replaced traditional leadership patterns that value rationality and autonomy with new leadership practices that focus on communication, collaboration and creation of meaning (Werhane, 2007). Organisations are now on the search for leaders with these values. In light of these changes, women have a greater opportunity to fit into leadership positions with their distinctive range of leadership skill set (Billing and Alvesson, 1989).
In Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, Immanuel Kant posits that women’s philosophy “is not to reason, but to sense”. Research has similarly found that women are naturally predisposed to have a higher Empathising Quotient (EQ) in the understanding of feeling and emotion whereas men have a higher Systemising Quotient (SQ) in their understanding of mechanical relationships of non-social contexts (Baron-Cohen, 2003). It is this intuitive Kantian orientation towards sense and emotion that can make women imminently suitable for leadership positions. This idea forms part of the “special contribution” argument (Billing and Alvesson, 1989) that highlights how women’s inherent nature actually gives them distinctive leadership skills that add value to the workplace climate.
Ibrahim and Angelidis (1994) for example, examined 348 male and female directors for gender differences in board directors’ corporate social responsiveness. Results showed that women directors were significantly more philanthropically driven whereas male directors were economically driven. This reflects the “Meaning” dimension of the Centered leadership model in which women leaders are more likely than men to go beyond daily tasks and focus on the meaning in their work.Moreover, unlike male leaders, women do not view their authority as a position of power, but are centered or “transactional” leaders who are able to manage their energy appropriately. Women adopt a power-sharing mindset that has actually been shown to dramatically reduce the likelihood of corporate and group think errors (Burton and Ryall, 1995; Grant, 1988) and can benefit in situations that require co-operation and the need for social support (Valentine, 1995).
An example of the importance of a centered, distinctive leadership style in practice comes from Avon Products CEO Andrea Jung who described how the rejection of the male centered approach of delegation and control when the company needed restructuring an instead an emphasis on maintaining positive relations with employees (i.e. engaging with employees) led employees to feel they were been treated with respect and dignity. The company resumed growth in nineteen months (Barsh, Craske & Cranston, 2010).
Another supporting argument for the need for a distinctive range of leadership skills for women in business builds on the “Connecting” dimension of the centered leadership model. Whilst men have a primarily “separateness” self-schema, women have a “connectedness” self-schema (Markus and Oyserman, 1989) and as a result, are much more likely to be moral and ethical leaders with a focus on empowering others. It is this type of ethical leadership that has been found to often be the most effective form of leadership (Billing and Alvesson, 1989) as it can create a productive work climate and even, increased profitability. Whilst men’s characteristics may excel as leaders in situations that require direction and control, female leadership skills provides a complementary balance to “the exaggerate male psychology of autonomy and separateness” (Grant, 1988, p. 62) that is greatly needed in businesses. However, although research has demonstrated the benefits of female leadership skills, a major difficulty with models such as the centered leadership model is that it is not always easy to implement these skills in businesses that have a long history of male organisational principles (Billing and Alvesson, 1989).
A common perception among business people is that men are better leaders than women (Bass, Krusell and Alexander, 1971) and a result, women often adapt their leadership skills to be the same as men. Werhane et al (2006) for example, found that American women business leaders adopted a “Survive and Thrive” mentality so they could meet the demands of the competitive male-dominated environment. In addition, research has indicated that females can often underperform due to the threat of stereotyping (Maas, D’etolle and Cadinu, 2008) which provides further incentive for women to adopt the same range of leadership skills as men.
In the course of this essay, it has become evident that no single model or theory can be applied to understanding the complex situation of women and leadership skills in the business world. However, there is no doubt that models such as the Centred Leadership Model are on the right track to aiding women become more effective leaders in business. Future research must continue down this line and corresponding initiatives must be implemented to actively help women develop the leadership skills that tap into their natural tendencies, mindsets and values. A working example of success is Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management’s Center for Executive Women that helps women develop leadership styles and move ahead to board of director positions (Biddle, 2012).
Secondly, a way must be found to raise awareness at a societal level among both men and women of gender stereotypes and their impact on women’s career progression.To conclude, in The Republic, Plato described women as equal and as capable as men, but he also upheld the principle that “different pursuits to different natures and the same to same”. In respect to this principle, there was certainly a time that the different natures of men and women and their leadership styles in business was seen as problematic. However, as a result of the radical changes that have occurred in leadership, the different range of leadership skills of women must be celebrated, not discouraged
If women are to succeed as leaders, they need to remain true to their nature, their mindsets and their values. In so doing, women may develop a viable and applicable leadership style (e.g. centered leadership) that works well in their diverse business environment. The arrival of such a dawn may suggest the revision of Plato’s principle and a demonstration that different natures can operate and most importantly, excel in the same pursuits.
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