What do men need to learn about leadership?

Tsai Ing-wen (Taiwan), Angela Merkel (Germany), Jacinda Ardern (New Zealand), Mette Frederiksen (Denmark), Sanna Marin (Finland) – lead countries that have controlled and managed the virus in the first wave of this pandemic. Yes, there are factors other than leadership involved, like a relatively high level of ICU beds in Germany that was constantly criticized as wasteful before the pandemic, but it does not negate the fact that the most successful countries in controlling the virus are led by women.

Women may experience a leadership advantage relative to men
Ashleigh Shelby Rosette, Professor at Duke University,  and Leigh Plunkett Tost, Assistant Professor of Management & Organizations -- University of Southern California, Marshall School of Business , who meticulously looked through a lot of research and also undertook their own research reported in 2010¹ “that once women break through the glass ceiling, they may experience a leadership advantage relative to men. Specifically, when women succeed in top level positions, they are more likely to be viewed as highly agentic², and their communal characteristics are more likely to be considered beneficial due to the changing construction of what it means to be a good leader (Eagly & Carli, 2003a; Sitkin, Lind, & Long, 2005).”

What do women tend to do differently?
So, what do women tend to do differently in how they approach leadership? I had a conversation with two of my colleagues who coach senior women leaders and regularly facilitate workshops for female and male leaders – Ludmila Kostandova and Fabiola Ortiz.

“In difficult circumstances women can bring a new kind or leadership which includes performance but also includes relationship focus and well-being for everyone” says Ludmila. Rosette and Toast describe this in terms of “Effective leaders not only need to be achievement oriented, competitive, decisive, and independent but also must recognize the importance of building strong relationships, collaborating with others, and taking care of their employees through coaching and development. Successful top female leaders were perceived as possessing all of these characteristics.”

Why don’t we have more women in senior leadership positions?
Grant Thornthon³ reported in 2019 that the portion of senior roles held by women globally was only 29%. The good news is that this was up from the low to medium 20’s for earlier years and that 87% of businesses had at least one woman in senior management another quite dramatic improvement on previous years.

Women in leadership face inherent biases against them purely because of their gender. Boys growing up are encouraged to dare. Girls are encouraged to be perfect. So, they are less equipped or prepared by their conditioning to take risks. “This resonates with every woman I am working with or coaching right now” says Ludmila and Fabiola concurs that she shares the same experience. This is one element of the potential difference in style that characterizes women leaders versus male leaders and it is worth exploring a little.

There is another factor that is to be considered : “In many corporations, women face a dominant masculine values-oriented leadership. When their leadership style emerges, the system repeatedly sends a message, explicit or implicit, qualifying their approach as inadequate. This creates isolation and self-doubt. My managerial and coaching experience is that women need to develop a confidence on the added value of feminine values-oriented leadership” says Fabiola. This is as well the conclusion of Isabella Lenarduzzi⁴, gender specialist, about some women who, unwilling to adapt to a dominant style of leadership, stay in lower management levels.

Do men and women differ in their appetite for risk?
This is something that John Coates specifically looked at when researching to write his book, The Hour between Dog and Wolf⁵, about traders and risk taking, which he wrote in the aftermath of the financial crisis. He quotes some very interesting findings from a paper “Boys will be boys”⁶ by two economists at the University of California Brad Barber and Terrance Odean who analysed the brokerage records of 35,000 personal investors over the period 1991 to 1997 and found that single women outperformed single men by 1.44 percent. He goes on “a similar result was announced in 2009 by Chicago based Hedge Fund Research which found that over the previous nine years hedge funds run by women had significantly outperformed those run by men”. Coates explored further and he concluded that “the difference between men’s and women’s risk taking may not be so much the level of risk-aversion as it is the period of time over which they prefer to make their decisions”. Women do take risks but not as frequently as men and perhaps more carefully considered.

Coates also goes on to say: “the financial world desperately needs more long-term, strategic thinking, and the data indicate that women excel at this… Perhaps this aggressive demand for short-term performance has prevented banks from discovering the high long term returns of which women are capable.”

Here are four descriptions of women in senior leadership positions and what they are doing from Fortune’s the most powerful women international 2019⁷ and illustrating examples of risk taking.
• “Ana Botín executive Chairman of Banco Santander. Botín, who took control five years ago after the sudden death of her father, has made steady progress on her promises to strengthen Santander’s capital, cultivate customer loyalty (up more than 40% since 2015 by internal measures), and digitize the bank’s platforms (used by 32 million customers and counting). Botín didn’t have a perfect year though, making a high-profile blunder—hiring a new CEO and then rescinding the offer—that resulted in a $100 million lawsuit.
• Emma Walmsley, CEO of Glaxo SmithKline, has a rare distinction—she’s among just a handful of female CEOs in an industry infamous for its male skew in the C-Suite. But Walmsley hasn’t been shy about making her mark in the world of Big Pharma, transforming the core business strategy of GlaxoSmithKline, the British drug giant with more than $100 billion in market value, since she took the reins back in April 2017. Walmsley has been aggressive in striking deals—and hiring big name talent, like R&D chief Hal Barron—to bolster GSK’s drug pipeline. In January, the firm closed a $5 billion deal for the cancer-focused biotech Tesaro, part of a major shakeup intended to make GSK a dominant player in the oncology space after years of stagnation. And if those changes weren’t forward-looking enough, Walmsley oversaw a deal with 23andMe last year to leverage the genetic testing firm’s insights for drug development. She was nominated to the Microsoft board in September.
• Dong Mingzhu, Chairwoman and President Gree Electric Appliances. Dong, one of the most revered business leaders in China, rules the nation’s largest aircon manufacturer with an iron grip. Last year, as Gree’s longstanding chairperson, Dong stared down the company’s largest shareholder when they pushed for greater derivative pay-outs. Instead, Dong invested the money in semiconductors so that Gree can wean itself off of its dependence on U.S. suppliers. Dong, a frequent delegate to China’s governmental advisory body, the National People’s Congress, is so confident in Gree’s long term prospects that she recently renewed a Rmb1 billion ($140 million) bet with smartphone maker Xiaomi on which company would have higher revenues in five years’ time. Gree won the last bet, which closed in 2018, with revenues surging 33% to $30 billion. Dong didn’t collect her winnings.
• Shemara Wikramanayake, CEO and Managing Director, Macquarie Group. Having taken over as CEO of Macquarie late last year, Wikramanayake is officially the first woman to sit atop the roughly $28 billion investment bank. This year, the Australian executive turned her eye to climate change, becoming one of only three global CEOs to be named a commissioner of the World Bank’s Global Commission on Adaptation. Leveraging Macquarie’s roughly $82 billion infrastructure funds, Wikramanayake is pushing for more investment in environmentally-friendly and resilient development. To boot, the CEO spearheaded the move to raise an additional $680 million for investment in renewables and technology, which was completed in August.”

What else may be a difference factor?
Humility in leadership has long been a trait identified with good leadership practice. “Ambition is a difficult word for women” says Ludmila. It has connotations that women have difficulty identifying with. And, of course, it is a trait organisations are often looking for in their leaders. “I often need to support women reframing ambition into something that they recognize. It is closer for them to talk about the vision they might have for their organisation, and then to connect to the new dimensions of leadership they need to embody and project to bring this vision into life. The question of ambition is then reframed into an inspiring project in service of others.”

It is a challenge for many women to talk about themselves. This can be an impediment to self-awareness and exploration. However, when the topic is approached by asking questions like, what are you called for? and what are you doing for others? Women find it easier to respond as it is not about “ego”.

“Legacy is also often an important element for women leaders” says Fabiola.  Women leaders are concerned about the questions if you were to leave what will you leave behind and what opportunities have you opened up for others?

So perhaps men in leadership positions need to ask themselves:
• Am I enabling and creating the conditions for 50% of my leadership talent to make it to positions of power where they can perhaps make a bigger difference?
• Am I allowing enough time to decide on what risks to take and giving them enough time to play out?
• Am I able to put aside my ego and reflect on what I am called for and what am I doing for others?
• Have I thought about what legacy I will leave behind and acted on it?

The answers may bring them some valuable insights.

How should men seek to adapt their style?
Here is a useful check list that Ludmila and Fabiola suggest:

  • Observe. Watch what women leaders do without dismissing it. Be open to learn.
  • Explore. With compassion what is going on in the relations in the room. What are the emotions in the room? Starting with myself and how do I think others are feeling? Embrace the perspective. What am I seeing? What if I put myself in the position of each other person in the room what are they seeing? How does their function or area of responsibility influence the way they see things?
  • Invite and listen. Ask people to share their opinions. Create the space that they can do so safely and listen to what they are saying.
  • Investigate with a healthy self-doubt. You may be very confident in your own opinion but suspend the opinion/conclusion and explore while I am of a different opinion what nuggets of truth or wisdom may be present in what the other is saying.
  • Develop a growing mindset through coaching. Come prepared with what elements of your leadership style do you want to work on or flex and what elements do you want to seek to adopt. Bring it with a real project you can work on in the business. Trying to work on something in general or isolation is challenging. It makes sense to work on it in a particular context.


1. Agentic Women and Communal Leadership: How Role Prescriptions Confer Advantage to Top Women Leaders, Ashleigh Shelby Rosette and Leigh Plunkett Tost, Journal of Applied Psychology Vol. 95, No. 2, 221–235.
2. https://inequalitygaps.org/img_1668-2/
3. https://www.grantthornton.global/globalassets/global-insights---do-not-e...
4. Isabella Lenarduzzi, Founder and Managing Director at JUMP. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aWhJn05qEIM&list=PLY-alI5t6P0F004a4NzNTb...
5. The hour between dog and wolf, risk-taking, gut feeling and the biology of boom and bust by John Coates. Fourth Estate printed in 2012.
6. https://faculty.haas.berkeley.edu/odean/papers/gender/BoysWillBeBoys.pdf
7. https://fortune.com/most-powerful-women-international/2019

Leadership Style
Female Leadership Style

About the Author

Fabiola Ortiz

Fabiola Ortiz

Fabiola Ortiz is a training and development specialist and coach. After 18 years of international corporate experience, 14 of them as a CFO for international affiliates, she has devoted herself to the development of managers and teams towards their full potential.

Gerry Buckley

Gerry Buckley

Gerry Buckley is a Managing Partner of Performance Plus International (PPI) and a founding member of the PPI Network. He has a depth of experience in management development and training built up over many years, initially in Ireland, then in Africa and for the last 25 years in Europe based in Belgium.