No single challenge has been greater for me as a leader than learning how to take better care of the people I lead, and to create a safe, supportive space in which they can thrive. Like most men I know, I grew up with very little modeling around empathy — the ability to recognize, experience and be sensitive to what others are feeling.
Empathy proved especially difficult for me whenever I felt vulnerable. My instinctive response was to protect myself, most often with aggression. I equated aggression with safety, and vulnerability with weakness. Today, I recognize the opposite is often true. The more I acknowledge my own fears and uncertainties, the safer people feel with me and the more effectively they work. But even now, I’m amazed at how dense I can sometimes be.
An effective modern leader requires a blend of intellectual qualities — the ability to think analytically, strategically and creatively — and emotional ones, including self-awareness, empathy, and humility. In short, great leadership begins with being a whole human being.
I meet far more women with this blend of qualities than I do men, and especially so when it comes to emotional and social intelligence.
To a significant degree, that’s a reflection of limitations men almost inevitably develop in a culture that measures us by the ability to project strength and confidence, hide what we’re feeling (including from ourselves), and define who we are above all by our external accomplishments and our capacity to prevail over others.
The vast majority of CEOs and senior executives I’ve met over the past decade are men with just these limitations. Most of them resist introspection, feel more comfortable measuring outcomes than they do managing emotions, and under-appreciate the powerful connection between how people feel and how they perform.
I’m not suggesting gender ensures or precludes any specific qualities. I’ve met and hired men who are just as self-aware, authentic and capable of connection as any women. This is especially (and encouragingly) true among younger men. I’ve also encountered many senior women executives who’ve modeled themselves after male leaders, or perhaps felt they had to adopt their style to survive, and are just as narrow and emotionally limited as their worst male counterparts.
For the most part, however, women, more than men, bring to leadership a more complete range of the qualities modern leaders need, including self-awareness, emotional attunement, humility and authenticity.
That’s scarcely just my own view. In March, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman reported here on their study of 7300 leaders who got rated by their peers, supervisors and direct reports. Women scored higher in 12 of 16 key skills — not just developing others, building relationships, collaborating, and practicing self development, but also taking initiative, driving for results and solving problems and analyzing issues.
In another study of 2250 adults conducted by the PEW center, women were rated higher on a range of leadership qualities including honesty, intelligence, diligence, compassion and creativity.
For all that, women still hold only 14 percent of senior executive positions in Fortune 500 companies, a percentage has barely budged over the last decade. So why do women remain so vastly underrepresented at the highest levels of large companies?
There are many answers, including the fact that even the most educated women typically take the primary role in raising their children, and are far more likely than men to scale back their careers and ambitions, or even leave the workforce altogether.
But perhaps the key explanation is that men commonly bring more of one key capacity to the competition for senior leadership roles: aggression. The word aggression comes from The Latin root “ag” (before) and “gred” (to walk or step). Aggression, therefore, connotes stepping before or in front of someone and it has an undeniably genetic component. Men have in 7 to 8 times the concentration of testosterone in their blood plasma than women do.
From an early age, men often overvalue their strengths, while women too frequently underrate theirs. In reality, we all struggle to feel a stable sense of value and self-worth. Men often defend against their doubts by moving to grandiosity and inflation, while women more frequently move to insecurity and deferral. Men seek more often to win, women to connect. So long as the path to power is connected to proving you’re bigger and badder, it’s no surprise that men have mostly prevailed.
But the leadership skills required to fuel great performance are far more nuanced and multi-dimensional today than ever before. As Hanna Rosin puts it in her new book The End of Men, “The post-industrial economy is indifferent to men’s size and strength.”
Instead, we need more male leaders with the courage to stand down, comfortably acknowledge their shortcomings, and help those they lead feel safe and appreciated rather than fearful and inadequate. We need more women with the courage to step up, fully own their strengths, and lead with confidence and resolve while also holding on to their humanity and their humility.
We need a new generation of leaders — men and women — who willingly embrace their opposites.