The female approach to leadership
VaynerMedia's Sarah Baumann considers whether there is something inherently different about female leadership
The relative merits and failings of women as leaders have been picked over for many years now. This process invariably involves stereotypes and gender-based assumptions that say more about the beliefs and prejudices of those commentating, than the realities of the female managers.
But the past few months have presented us with an interesting opportunity for comparison. As Covid-19 spread across the world, several observers were keen to point out how female leaders have handled the health crisis "better" than their male counterparts. They would cite Jacinda Arden and Sanna Marin, Angela Merkel and Tsai Ing-wen.
And now analysis of 194 countries, published by the Centre for Economic Policy Research and the World Economic Forum, has scrutinised these claims.
Its authors found that “COVID-outcomes are systematically better in countries led by women and, to some extent, this may be explained by the proactive and coordinated policy responses adopted by them”. Female leaders reacted more quickly and decisively when faced with the potential fatalities, locking down earlier.
The influence of leaders is critical to the running of countries and businesses, whether in crisis or not. But is there something inherently different about female leadership?
Well, I’m writing this in the midst of sewing name tags on my kids’ school uniforms. Yes, I know there are sharpies and iron-on labels and I probably could have outsourced it, but part of my identity and experience is to do the normal things that mums do for their kids as well as work.
It’s not a deliberate act to stay connected and avoid living in a rarefied corporate world, but this is an example of how diversity of experience has an impact on leadership style.
The point is not about motherhood, but across the board I have found that women are often more grounded and more involved in day to day life, and this leads to a different form of analysis and decision-making process.
I love the CEPR and WEF Covid analysis around strong female decisiveness and action because it reflects what I admire in many of the female leaders I know. They think about problems from different perspectives, come up with different solutions and have a different style of implementing them. They decide fast and because they anticipate surprise or questions, they’re not derailed by them.
Perspective is everything. It’s a cliché to say that women are more empathetic or caring than men (my male boss happens to be one of the most empathetic human beings ever) but there is a machismo, an ego and status that exists in all-male leadership teams. And let’s be honest, media has been riddled with those for many years.
I think female leadership – with its associated attributes or styles – is often different because the world is simply not used to it. This means women leading agencies bring desperately needed alternative ideas, new approaches and diversity of thought to a tired, formulaic, 'establishment' approach.
In all walks of life – across governments and businesses – you look at white, privileged male line-ups and the rest of the world collectively sighs because you know exactly what the outcome will be.
So, my argument isn’t that female leadership is innately superior to male leadership. There are brilliant female leaders, mediocre and bad ones – the same spectrum that exists among male leaders – but the brilliant women like Arden and Merkel bring an alternative perspective and set of values alongside their leadership talent.
In the case of Covid, they were fearless in a way their male counterparts were not, especially in their decisions to do things for the benefit of people and thinking about the whole of society, rather than the few.
I think female leadership – with its associated attributes or styles – is often different because the world is simply not used to it."
This goes to the heart of why diversity is critical. We need people with unique standpoints, alternative outlooks, values and empathy that have been formed through varying life experiences. And of course, not just gender but ethnicity, disability, sexuality too. This then ensures that as leaders, they develop and execute ideas that reflect the needs of all society, not just the elites.
When women lead an organisation, the tone and dynamic within it does change; in my experience, that involves a more expansive mindset. They cut through the crap and create the environment for more diverse teams to innovate, pursue their ideas and thrive.
Within those organisations, emotion, circumstance – things that were previously seen as 'soft' – are more readily acknowledged which gives greater room for manoeuvre and breaks down hierarchical and antiquated structures and practices.
As managing director of VaynerMedia’s London office, I am one of three women leading our offices around the world – Singapore and Los Angeles are the others. Our agency is in a major growth phase, so we clearly all had something that our CEO, Gary Vaynerchuk, saw as being key to expanding and establishing the business.
Are female leaders more open to experimentation, trusting instincts, being bold, hiring and creating great teams, building trusted relationships? We should probably ask Gary. But I’d argue that female leaders certainly have good form when it comes to establishing open cultures, where teams feel invested in growth and are recognised for the role they play and the voice they have.
It’s about helping and supporting each other; we all want each other to succeed and that means our businesses succeed.
Sarah Baumann is managing director at VaynerMedia