One would have thought that in the 21st century the discourse about the role of gender in leadership would have been a story of the past. Nothing is further from the truth. In the recent U.S. presidential election, gender was used in the discourse to define effectiveness as a leader. Leadership has been traditionally defined as the ability to engage followers' higher needs--moving them beyond their self-interest to work for the greater good, enabling them to become self-actualized in the process and develop into leaders themselves. But many of the definitions and models of effective leadership have failed to include women's perception of what is effective leadership and what is not. This may be why leadership ability has traditionally been linked to male-specific traits and why women continue to face uneven opportunities in the workplace.
The differences found in how men and women perceive what an effective leader does:
1. Women tend to define effective leadership in terms of transformational characteristics (for example, a leader should be charismatic, use inspirational motivation, promote intellectual stimulation, and give individual consideration), while men consider characteristics of transactional leadership (for example, using contingent rewards) as being more effective in organizations.
2. More women describe themselves as having traits of transformational leaders, while more men use terms of transactional leadership to describe their own leadership styles.
3. Direct reports, regardless of gender, are more likely to describe a female leader in terms of transformational leadership while men are described as having more traits of transactional leaders (for example, management by exception or laissez-faire styles).
Thanks to globalization, more research has been directed at identifying leadership traits that are effective across nations and organizations regardless of gender. An important multicultural study was conducted in the U.K. by Beverly Alimo-Metcalfe and John Alban-Metcalfe. This study was aimed at identifying what leadership behaviors were considered more effective. They included in their sample an equal number of men and women, as well as diverse cultures. Study results identified the following as predictors of effective leadership, regardless of gender:
1. Has genuine concern for others' well-being and development, is interested in direct reports' development, is sensitive to needs and expectations
2. Has the ability to communicate vision, inspires, is skilled at networking, has good social skills, and is an achiever. This requires that the leader understands each stakeholder's agenda and helps stakeholders understand how they are served by the vision. This is the real meaning of shared vision.
3. Empowerment: This implies trusting your people will make the right decisions, giving them the opportunity to make decisions, and providing feedback. When a leader provides the opportunity to think strategically, a long-term vision is reinforced.
4. Consistency, honesty and integrity: This translates into behaviors such as admitting when one is wrong, emphasizing altruism, not feeling threatened by others' effectiveness, listening to criticism.
5. Being approachable: characterized by a disposition to listen in spite of being busy, ability to make time to listen to others, adopting an interpersonal style that is not threatening to others
6. Able to make tough decisions, confidence in oneself
7. Understanding where our strength comes from so that we can manage it
8. Ability to create connections and positive working environments
This model includes a balance between what traditional leadership models had labeled as male-dominant and female-dominant traits in leadership. This model opens possibilities for identifying leadership talent regardless of gender-based stereotypes.
In times of crisis, people tend to look for stronger leadership. There is more vulnerability because of this need, and cognitive shortcuts (stereotypes) can be used to define what good leadership is. But strong leadership is not solely defined by gender. That is why it becomes crucial to identify and choose the right leadership for our organizations, considering not only gender, but what has been proved effective by managerial science and evidence-based research that has included men and women in the process. The definition of leadership cannot be guided anymore by perceptions or preferences that can be manipulated or tainted by our own need and urgency to find a hero (or a heroine).