Does Gender Matter in Leadership?

By Cathy McCullough


Someone recently said to me (very enthusiastically), “Women make better leaders!” I stood there in a circleGreat Leadership of leaders (men and women) and thought to myself: Really? I found her comment intriguing—probably because I don’t believe it. Some of the worst leaders I’ve ever worked with have been women, so my experience (albeit limited in this area) made my forehead wrinkle up a bit and my mouth skew to one side as I pondered her comment. 

Others in the circle tended to agree with her. At a deeper level, it seems that such a comment is actually an assumption, and it’s important that we challenge our assumptions. 

In a recent study by Zenger Folkman women leaders did score higher on most all leadership attributes (such as taking initiative, self-development, integrity and honesty, driving for results, building relationships, championing change, demonstrating technical expertise, etc.). The only area women did not score higher than men was on developing a strategic perspective, yet the mean percentile was 51 for men and 49 for women; not much difference there. It’s important to note, too, that the men in this study didn’t ‘tank,’ so to speak. They just weren’t quite as high as women.

Then again, according to a huge study on the ‘man vs. woman’ leadership debate completed by the Journal of Applied Psychology, there was little to no significant difference between men and women as leaders. 

A Better Question

What might matter more than gender is: What characteristics actually define a great leader? When we look at what the various research studies say about this, we can see the attributes of what constitutes a truly well rounded, impactful company leader. That list of attributes tells us that great leaders are humble, grounded in the Core Values of the company, honest, inspirational, and committed. They know how to communicate their vision well with those around them, and they welcome the innovative thinking necessary to create the company’s next set of Winning Moves; people find these forward-thinking discussions (and the leader) inspirational. They also delegate with the right sense of pride, and they tend to be optimistic and positive in their approach. 

What’s missing from all these lists we find of great leaders? Well, there’s not much on any of the lists about how smart the person is. While competence is clearly important to lead a company to success, we’ll take industry competence as a table-stake. What makes the clear difference relative to being a great leader vs. a good leader (or, for that matter, a bad leader) isn’t subject-matter intelligence; it’s emotional intelligence (EI).

This brings me back to leadership. Your IQ can be developed over time (although this point is also a hot topic in the world of research). However, EI is more flexible and adaptable; therefore, it can be developed to a much greater degree than IQ. That pliability means anyone who wants to grow toward becoming a better leader can do it. It simply takes a strong sense of commitment, and the greatest commitment that has to be made is in changing the way you think. What you tell yourself about leadership matters because our behaviors are based on what we think; we have to ‘think’ it before we ‘behave’ it. 

To this end, then, while women might score slightly higher on ‘leadership’ tests than men, the qualities for becoming a great leader can be had by anyone. Rather than jumping to the assumption that “women are better leaders,” we should perhaps begin to focus more on developing the skills that feed the behaviors of great leadership.

So, What Gender is Leadership?

To me, truly great leadership is genderless. Because of socialization, women might lean more toward having developed some of the attributes for great leadership, and/or they may have brought a more humanistic perspective into the workplace. However, that doesn’t automatically mean “women are better leaders.” Jim Collins’ list of the greatest CEOs of all time are all men (the exception being Kathryn Graham). And, yes: There aren’t as many women at the top of the organizational chart so his pool was probably limited. Nonetheless, for us to jump to the conclusion that “women are better leaders than men” simply seems out of tune. Why? Because the behaviors that drive leadership success apply to either gender. They are the success factors for any leader.

Great leadership is hard work; it takes effort, focus, and a relentless development of self. It’s a road paved with hits and misses and lots of lessons learned. No matter what your gender, if you want to be a great leader, then go for it because the characteristics for becoming such a leader are a personal Path of Progress away from becoming reality.

Let your journey begin.

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Cathy McCullough


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