Should organizations be more appreciative of diverse leadership styles?

 Nandita Mehta

Peter Drucker once famously said “An effective executive does not need to be a leader in the sense that the term is now most commonly used. Harry Truman did not have one ounce of charisma, for example, yet he was among the most effective chief executives in U.S. history. Similarly, some of the best business and non-profit CEOs I’ve worked with over a 65-year consulting career were not stereotypical leaders. They were all over the map in terms of their personalities, attitudes, values, strengths, and weaknesses. They ranged from extroverted to nearly reclusive, from easygoing to controlling, from generous to parsimonious….”

Yet most organizations have fairly rigid formal competency models together with powerful and deeply entrenched informal mental models of how typical executives should think and act. What is of even greater concern is that these models are developed on the basis of data derived from observing the behavior of successful executives within the organization, and 8 times out of 10 these are likely to be male executives.

While no one can argue with broad tenets like customer centricity, strategic agility and valuing team members, what needs to be examined is how these tenets are translated into behaviour that is held up as a model for all aspiring executives. Very often agentic behaviour characteristics of male executives related to subtle dominance and a controlled display of emotions of pride and assertiveness get translated into ‘the ability to lead large teams’ or ‘executive presence’. Schein and Davidson’s landmark study ‘think manager, think male’ would be even truer if rephrased ‘think executive, think male’.

Research also shows that men and women have different and often opposing views of ‘what constitutes good leadership’ As an illustration a study into leadership constructs by male and female managers shows that for the attribute communication, men responded by saying that the ideal leader should be “confident as a speaker”, “able to influence others”, “At ease with people” and “able to communicate their views effectively to a wide range of audiences”; Women responded to the same question by saying that the ideal leader should be “able to relate to others on an equal level”, “be personally approachable ( can share personal information and respond humanely)”, “fun to be with”, “sensitive( has time to notice the concerns of others)” and be able to” communicate support of others points of views”. When it came to working style men felt leaders should be “confident”, “forceful”, “political”, “flamboyant” whereas women described the ideal leaders working style as “measured”, “participative” and “should work through people”.(Alimo-Metcalfe et al 2010)

Many coaching and mentoring programs for developing women leaders are focused on developing agentic behaviours that are associated with successful male executives. This approach is unlikely to work in practice. Women leaders who do display these ‘me too’ behaviours are likely to be rejected by their team members and peers for being ‘uncharacteristically aggressive’ and for going against the grain of the ‘communal’ style associated with female stereotypical behaviour. This places women leaders in a double bind, making them unlikely to succeed in both cases, whether they display so called executive behaviour or not.

Successful women leaders on the other hand often deploy a different set of tools from their toolbox. Some of the managerial and executive behaviours in which research indicates they may be more adept in comparison to their male counterparts are;

1)     Building trust

Trust is an outcome of reciprocity, collaborative tendencies and personal equity. To attain leadership positions women have had to work hard to battle the disadvantages of the lack of role models or supportive relationships. Many have learned from experience to practice interpersonal behavior that is collaborative, honors reciprocity and builds equity. (Liff and Ward 2001)

While the differences in leadership style between men and women have to be studied in relation to the context in which they are practiced, there is substantial research that builds the case that women more often than men deploy a transformational style with an emphasis on valuing cooperation and being responsible to others.

2)     Conflict resolution

Conflict resolution is an important leadership skill because it is now widely acknowledged that a conflict properly handled is more beneficial to the organization than detrimental. Work group conflict has been correlated to greater innovation, improved team performance and more effective decision making.

A study using the Thomas Kilman Conflict Mode Instrument studied approaches to conflict management deployed by men and women. (Brahnam et al 2005) Results indicate that women are less likely to deploy an ‘avoidance’ strategy compared to their male counterparts and are more likely to deploy a ‘collaborative’ or ‘win-win’ strategy. A collaborative strategy is superior and yields more beneficial outcomes for the organization, while an avoidance strategy is likely to be more disruptive. Women participants in this study proved to be more effective in resolving conflicts.

3)     Agility in cross cultural contexts

A large body of research suggests that women excel at particular competencies, characteristics and styles as measured by the Global Mindset Inventory or (GMI) such as ‘intercultural sensitivity, empathy, diplomacy and passion for diversity’ (Javidan et al 2016). This is also substantiated by the fact that amongst millennial students in the United States, nearly twice as many women students compared to men studied abroad. A study carried out by the Institute of International Education (Vance and McNulty 2014), showed that women displayed a much more stronger interest in travelling and living abroad.

4)     Empowerment

Empowerment that consists of sharing power and information with a view to accelerate participation in followers, is one of the key components of transformative leadership or leadership that is participative, collective and non-hierarchical. Many studies show that women are more adept at this form of leadership compared to men. A study of women presidents in the fashion industry revealed that they considered their employees as partners, were more empowering, they were vocal about company success being built on teamwork and shared collective credit openly. This was also reflected in bonus and compensation packages.

The Organizational implications of this span across leadership evaluation and development. One call for action is that organizations shed pre-existing notions of ‘leader like behavior’, or “leader behavior that will be successful within xyz culture”, and look at objective data while evaluating performance and promotion suitability.

Organizations should also examine their executive competency models and annual leadership evaluation surveys to ensure that they are not overly prescriptive around a particular style of leadership. Too much of a reductionist approach can lead to a checklist of behaviors that will not capture the complexity of leadership thought and action required at executive levels. The primary tasks of executives revolve around setting direction, creating alignment and ensuring commitment. One can set direction based on a compelling personal vision, but can do so equally well by examining gaps between current and future states. Creating alignment can be a flamboyant exercise of bold communication with forceful messages of ‘either get on board or get out of the way’, or it can be an equally effective exercise of subtle backroom coalition building. Commitment can be garnered by personal charisma and calls to loyalty or equally effectively by creating roles which make creative use of talent so that individuals find value inherent in their jobs.

Leadership development for women should not be based on the premise that women who deploy a skill suite that differs from the prevailing norm are ‘not developed enough’. Women will need greater sponsorship as well as the guidance from mentors because of the many barriers they continue to face. They may also need training, much like men, in either agentic or transformative skills to widen the expanse of their leadership repertoire. However all three development strategies; sponsorship, mentoring and training will only succeed when they are rooted in supporting women leaders to play to their unique strengths.



Brescoll, V. (2016). Leading with their hearts? How gender stereotypes of emotion lead to biased evaluations of female leaders. The Leadership Quarterly, 27(3), 415-428.

Marshall, S. (2001). Her way: women presidents leading companies. Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management, 5(3), 223-233.

Moore, P.D., Moore, L.J., & Moore, W.J. (2011). How women entrepreneurs lead and why they manage that way. Gender in Management: An International Journal, 26(3), 220-233.

Women and Leadership by Karin Klenke : NY New York Springer Publishing company


Brahnam, D.S., Margavio, M.T., Hignite, A.M., Barrier, B.T., & Chin, M.J. (2005). A gender‐based categorization for conflict resolution. Journal of Management Development, 24(3), 197-208.

Alimo‐Metcalfe, B. (2010). An investigation of female and male constructs of leadership and empowerment. Gender in Management: An International Journal, 25(8), 640-648.

Schein, V., Mueller, R., Lituchy, T., & Liu, J. (1996). Think manager—think male: a global phenomenon? Journal of Organizational Behavior, 17(1), 33-41.

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