I have been fortunate to spend the last 25 years developing senior leaders and executives. During that time two of the questions I get asked most frequently are:
‘To be an effective leader what is it I need to do?’ and
‘To be an effective leader how to I need to be/what should my style be?’
Both are valid questions that effective senior leaders need to have considered as part of their development, however my observation is that the former of these questions is most frequently asked by male leaders, and the latter by female leaders.
Why is this so? I believe that as women have become more present within leadership roles, over the past say 30 years, one of their key challenges – and some might say inhibitors – has been a view that they needed to lead in a certain style. Most commonly a ‘traditional male’ leadership style.
Accepting that observations such as this can always be seen to play to stereotypes (and for every statement there is always an exception we can think about) let’s consider what that ‘traditional male’ style may be, how female leaders initially may have sought to emulate that and how now finally female leaders are becoming clearer that the important challenge is to develop their own authentic leadership style that both plays to their talents and is also flexible enough to enable them to lead in the way required to get great performance from a situation or individual.
If we use Dan Goleman’s model for leadership first described in ‘New Leaders’ he describes the 6 leadership styles:
Directive: getting immediate compliance – giving clear instructions and deliverables
Visionary: providing long-term direction and vision – providing the why and explaining the context
Affiliative style: creating harmony – being aware of, and caring for, the individual’s needs and motivation
Participative: building commitment and generating new ideas – involving others in joint solutions and building commitment
Pace setting: accomplishing task to high standards of excellence –driving for more and better performance from others
Coaching: supporting long term professional development – providing the stimulus and environment for others to flourish and develop
The aim is (according to Goleman) for leaders to build flexibility across, and capability in, all 6 styles.
So what could we mean when talking about female leaders initially emulating a ‘traditional male’ leadership style?
That would be a leader that has a strong preference for the Directive, Pace setting and Visionary styles, and some tactical use of Participative style, with low levels of use of the Affiliative and Coaching styles. This leader ensures that people know what is expected of them, to what standard and why, and whilst displaying relatively low levels of empathy, listening and involvement - and developing people through exposure to a task rather than through purposeful coaching.
In my experience of using this model female senior leaders women typically have naturally higher preference for the Affiliative, Participative and Coaching styles – often with an ability to display the Visionary style as well. They are naturally less comfortable with the Directive and Pace setting styles (holding people to account for high standards and the achievement of tasks). As leaders they enjoy working with and through people, seeking to being the best out of those people and using the efforts of all to build successful teams and moving towards a long term vision.
Interestingly a trend, up until about 5 years ago, was for senior female leaders with the above preferences to invest their energy into changing their style and developing capability and comfort with their least favoured styles and talking openly about ‘hiding’ their preferences for the other styles – often referring to them as their ‘softer side’.
So has this changed? In my experience yes it has. Firstly female leaders are seeking to:
• understand their own preferences in terms of styles more
• accept that they need to utilise and value their natural preferences whilst building the capability to utilise all of the leadership styles
• invest time in developing their capabilities into their least preferred ones
And all of the above whilst – most importantly – developing a flexible leadership style that is authentic to them and their inherent modus operandi and that can be flexed to get great performance from a variety of situations and people.
Incidentally – in what may be equality indeed – I see male senior leaders beginning to accept the need to achieve the same leadership development journey as well!