Are You a Male or Female Leader?

December 4, 2013 7:59 pm

By Barbara Frankel

Jim Turley, Beth Mooney

Turley and Mooney

There has been much written about the male “command and control” style of leadership versus the female collaborative model. The recent federal government shutdown, a debacle of male “toughness” and posturing resolved by female bipartisanship, brought this home in a very real way to many Americans.

I believe that the best male leaders embrace more traditionally female traits, especially those involving really listening to people and accepting that the boss isn’t always right. The “soft skills” of social and emotional intelligence come into play increasingly in the critical decisions that impact businesses—and lives—every day. Conversely, the best female leaders embrace more traditionally male traits, decisive actions, forthright communications, self-promotion and assertiveness.

There have been several male leaders in recent times who successfully embodied a more feminine style of leadership. Former President Bill Clinton gets high marks for emotional intelligence. Those who have met him note his ability to look deeply into people’s eyes, listen to what they are saying, and quickly form a sympathetic connection. Jim Turley, who retired this year as Chairman and CEO of EY, often noted how his female executives taught him new leadership skills, especially listening, and how it improved his ability to innovate and guide his company.

Are You an Oprah or a Hillary?

Decades ago, women who succeeded had to be men in skirts. What’s different in recent years is women retaining their femininity and self-identity while also demonstrating more male leadership traits. Examples are Hillary Clinton, who showed her calm and decisive ability under stress while Secretary of State; Beth Mooney, the Chairman and CEO of KeyCorp who has led her organization to financial success without compromising her belief in an inclusive culture; and Oprah Winfrey, who is able to push herself and her own brand to remarkable new heights.

All of us both embody and defy stereotypes. The danger in negative stereotyping is that it perpetuates perceptions that suppress people. The benefits of positive stereotyping are that we can adapt traits that further our organizations and ourselves.

Earlier in my career, I was told that I “thought like a man.” I wasn’t sure at the time if that was a compliment or an insult. Now I know that it can be a benefit as long as I don’t let it define me. The key to success is taking the best of both and never losing sight of who you really are.