There’s an ongoing debate in management schools about how women may lead differently from men and whether or not gender plays a role in determining management styles. What has been firmly established, though, is that there are clearly defined traits that are common in political, business and religious heads.
To examine the characteristics of successful women leaders, the 2014 Forbes’ Most Powerful Women list is a good place to start. To compile their directory of one hundred women who make a difference in the world, the Forbes editors’ based their rankings on the metrics of money, media presence, sphere of influence, and impact.
It is helpful to categorize the different types of leaders. In the 1940s, social psychologist Kurt Lewin studied their behavior and was able to group them in three categories:
- Authoritative — Task and action-based leadership. Discipline, obedience and efficiency are rewarded by these leaders.
- Democratic — Group-oriented leadership. Team participates in decision making; authority is delegated; subordinates are involved in establishing methodologies. Gives feedback and serves as a guide.
- Laissez-faire — A “natural order” agenda. Individuals follow their selfish interests to contribute to the general good.
In addition to these basic types of leaders, further research has been conducted to explore the differing skills of women bosses. In 2005, a year-long study conducted by consulting firms Caliper and Aurora identified a number of characteristics that distinguish women from men when it comes to qualities of leadership:
- Women leaders are more persuasive than their male counterparts.
- When feeling the sting of rejection, women leaders learn from adversity and carry on with an “I’ll show you” attitude.
- Women leaders demonstrate an inclusive, team-building leadership style of problem solving and decision making.
- Women leaders are more likely to ignore rules and risks.
Though specific female leadership characteristics may exist, such as more empathy and adaptability, it becomes evident by analyzing the personalities of the 10 most powerful women in the world that most of them utilize a combination of both lists.
Below are the top 10 according to the most recent data, published in May 2014:
- Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany
- Janet Yellen, Chair, Federal Reserve, United States
- Melinda Gates, Co-President of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, United States
- Dilma Rousseff, President of Brazil
- Christine Lagarde, Director of the International Monetary Fund, France
- Hillary Clinton, Former Secretary of State, United States
- Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, United States
- Michelle Obama, First Lady of the United States
- Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, United States
- Virginia Rometty, CEO of IBM, United States
History has left us with many examples of leaders who stand out because of their greatness and vision, but who have also exhibited an excess of ego – authoritarian leadership. The now iconic Steve Jobs falls into this category. Women of great determination and pragmatism when it comes to achieving their goals have also been included in this group. Angela Merkel, the top leader from the Forbes’ list is a good example. She is known for her heavy-handed, no-nonsense style. At the same time, she is very charismatic and persuasive. Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton have this mix of characteristics in common, as well: both revolutionized the political panorama with this powerful combination.
Most of these women have bridged the traditional leadership path with their own style. Dr. Musimbi Kanyoro, the World YWCA Secretary General, puts it this way. “Attitudes toward leadership are changing, and what women offer is essential.”
“Domination as a leadership style is becoming less and less popular,” Kanyoro said. “There is a new growing appreciation of those traits that women use to keep families together and to organize volunteers to unite and make change in the shared life of communities. These newly admired leadership qualities of shared leadership, nurturance, and doing good for others are today not only sought after but also indeed needed to make a difference in the world. A feminine way of leading includes helping the world to understand and be principled about values that really matter.”