Why women succeed as leaders better than men

Women showcase more of the behaviours needed to deliver outstanding leadership

In my recent article I focused on the relative lack of women in senior leadership roles and the strategic benefits to organisations of having more.

I quoted a McKinsey study that suggested having women on boards made organisations 27% more likely to beat competitors. I also shared my personal experience that, after more than 30 years as a leader in the military, business and government, where I spent most of my time developing leaders, women's capability to be effective leaders is just as great as that of men. In this article I will go further and say it is actually, on average, better.

Why are women more able to lead in a way that delivers what organisations need to be successful in 2019? It’s now clear to most people (though sadly not all) that the traditional command and control style of leadership is no longer effective in organisations. There is incontrovertible evidence that it degrades performance and leads to numerous problems including lack of engagement, ineffective decision-making, poor innovation, low responsiveness to customers, poor development, poor retention of talent and so on.

The nature of effective leadership is organically changing in line with wider societal changes and so a more consensual engaging approach to leadership now delivers the best results. People give their best to leaders who show they care about people, not to those who don’t care. And women often seem to be better at creating this ‘I care’ environment than men.

There are many studies that show this, but one of the most interesting, by Zenger Folkman, was initially conducted in 2011/12 and then updated this year. So not only was the original study of value but the findings were again confirmed in 2019, making it even more powerful.

The 2011/12 study was based on a 360-degree assessment of more than 7,000 senior leaders’ effectiveness, looking at 16 behaviours shown to deliver outstanding leadership. It compared the feedback of female and male leaders. Women scored better than men in areas that related to creating good relationships and engaging and developing others. However, this isn’t all the study showed. Women also rated better than men in 12 of the 16 behaviours that deliver outstanding leadership. Even more interesting is that on ‘taking initiative’ and ‘driving results’, often thought of as areas of male strength, women outperformed men.

Women, on average, outperformed men in the following:

  • Takes initiative.
  • Practises self development.
  • Drive for results.
  • Displays high integrity and honesty.
  • Develops others.
  • Inspires and motivates others.
  • Builds relationships.
  • Champions change.
  • Establishes stretch goals.
  • Collaboration and teamwork.
  • Connects to the outside world.
  • Communicates powerfully and prolifically.
  • Solves problems and analyses issues.
  • Innovates.

The research also found that women and men were about the same in ‘technical or professional expertise’ and that men outperformed women in ‘developing strategic perspective’.

The update to the study this year, where an additional 9,000 leaders were assessed, confirmed these earlier findings. However, they also added three more areas of assessment: resilience, bold leadership and leadership speed. On resilience women were ahead of men by six points, bold leadership by three and about the same on leadership speed.

So why aren’t more women in senior positions? It’s certainly not that they perform worse than men, as the evidence shows they are often actually better. It has to be that the recruitment and assessment techniques we use are either biased, ineffective or both. They are probably based on the false myths prevalent in organisations about gender. We need to work on facts not fiction and change how we recruit and asses to unleash the true potential of women in our organisations and societies.

As for men, all is not lost! The above also shows your route to success. Forget the command and control, the stereotypical image of the overly-competitive successful man, building a ‘me not we’ world… that’s long gone. Yes focus on performance but also build a ‘we not me’ world, and above all show you care.

That’s the way any leader, male or female, will get the best from their people and, as a group, women are ahead of the game on this. But this isn’t necessarily the case at all points in their careers. Sometimes men are more effective, but when and why is for the next article.

Chris Roebuck is honorary visiting professor of transformational leadership at Cass Business School, City University of London