The Forbes website has run a number of interesting articles in recent weeks about how some of the world leaders who are women have ‘performed’ during the COVID-19 crisis, as well as on the qualities that tend to characterise women’s leadership styles – and that might just be particularly useful in the current circumstances. It’s hard to systematically tie specific leaders to the characteristics that are identified, but it seems reasonable to assume that there is a connection.
“We crave honest, factual and timely information and someone to take full responsibility for the crisis. We see how important resourcefulness is and how a crisis obliterates boundaries, borders and biases how quickly we can discard ‘the way we’ve always done it’…”, says a US investor in one of the Forbes pieces.
With that in mind, they report on how Angela Merkel was particularly honest and direct about the seriousness of the crisis from the start. Germany may well have had better testing capabilities than the UK (a debate for another day) but the approach that Chancellor Merkel took allowed the country to bypass many of “the phases of denial, anger and disingenuousness we’ve seen elsewhere”.
It’s definitely not about women leaders taking ‘softer’ decisions (as the stereotypes might suggest) or making them more slowly. Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, reports Forbes, “was early to lockdown and crystal clear on the maximum level of alert she was putting the country under—and why. She imposed self-isolation on people entering New Zealand astonishingly early, when there were just 6 cases in the whole country, and banned foreigners entirely from entering soon after”. So maybe it’s more about whether a leader can carry the population with them, part of which must be demonstrating effective results (as New Zealand has), than about how strict the measures are.
Perhaps the most striking example of a woman leader doing things differently is Norway’s Prime Minister, Erna Solberg. She used television to talk directly to her country’s children, holding a dedicated press conference where no adults were allowed. She responded to children’s questions from across the country, taking time to deal with their emotions and fears. “The originality and obviousness of the idea takes one’s breath away”, says Forbes. “How many other simple, humane innovations would more female leadership unleash?”
So what are the specific aspects of women’s leadership styles that might be seen as most useful at the present time?
Studies show a statistically significant difference in the extent to which women leaders focus on developing their people, being clear about their expectations and rewarding the achievement of them, and on being a role model. They also rely more on inspiration and on participative decision making. What they do not do as much (statistically – there are exceptions) is to make decisions on an individual basis or through controlling, coercive measures.
It’s interesting to make comparisons with the response here in the UK. Certainly, it’s hard to imagine a number of our senior politicians holding a press conference to talk directly to children – not without it being pretty toe-curling, anyway. And there are important social and cultural differences between countries that mean that not everything about any leader’s approach will be easily transferable.
Nevertheless, one of my consistent messages to the girls is that, as they move through their lives taking up the opportunities that are now open to them – including leadership in all its forms – they should look to do things differently from how they’ve been done in the past. There is no benefit from repeating the mistakes of history, even if they are repeated under the leadership of women. It seems that the current crisis is serving as a test-bed for these different behaviours and showing that they really have the potential to pay dividends in the real world.
Dr Felicia Kirk, Headmistress
Postscript: Many thanks to Darcie Baylis for bringing the Forbes Article to my attention.