In recent weeks we have been seeing a string of articles praising the exemplary ways that women political leaders of various nations throughout the world have been handling the COVID-19 crisis. Some of these articles suggest, overtly or tacitly, that women are simply better leaders, period. It may actually be that countries with female leaders are more likely to have progressive societies with a relatively higher level of trust in the government, and people are therefore more likely to cooperate with their leaders. Or it might be that due to social, historical, and cultural factors, women leaders, be they in politics or business, could not have gotten to where they are without certain leadership qualities that are now serving them well during crisis.
Regardless of the possible reasons, rather than get mired in a debate over whether women are intrinsically better leaders or not, it may be more productive to look at the qualities these female leaders in government are displaying and consider which are essential for crisis leadership.
We can then see how those same qualities can help leaders in business, male and female alike, to also lead effectively in crisis. Even though government and business goals may obviously differ, some principles are universal.
Speaking at the United State of Women conference in 2018, Michelle Obama expressed frustration over watching male leaders repeatedly "blow it" and get second chances while women, in general, do not. Because of this, women leaders by necessity must be thoughtful and deliberate in their leadership. Since they can't afford to blow it, they need to begin pondering early on about what leadership qualities they wish to internalize and display, especially because they know they're being assessed every step of the way.
As I've been observing the actions of female political leaders during this crisis, what strikes me is that they all seem to be thoughtful, intentional, and deliberate about how they lead. The fact that Norway's Prime Minister Erna Solberg even considered, and has actually been holding, special news conferences just for children is a mark of this kind of thoughtful deliberateness. This same kind of thoughtful deliberateness can also help business leaders lead their companies through crises effectively. You might say that it is the foundation for all the other leadership qualities listed here.
As I've been observing the actions of female political leaders during this crisis, what strikes me is that they all seem to be thoughtful, intentional, and deliberate about how they lead.
Germany's Angela Merkel may be a scientist but most political leaders don't necessarily come from scientific backgrounds. In order to come up with effective crisis response strategies leaders must be willing to surround themselves with those who know more about various subject areas and to listen to them. This requires humility, a common trait shared by many of the women political leaders being celebrated now. Part of what made General Motors CEO Mary Barra's response to a crisis involving faulty ignition switches such a case study in good crisis management was the humility she showed during it.
New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is a leader who employs an inclusive leadership style, and this brings us to a component that goes hand-in-hand with humility: inclusiveness. Not only must leaders be willing to humble themselves and listen, they should be willing to include a diversity of voices in the dialogue. In times of stress, particularly, people often resort to habitual, biased modes of decision-making. But solving complex problems requires considering different points of view so that leaders can make decisions that have positive impacts on the collective whole, not just a segment of the whole. Business leaders who are inclusive of diverse viewpoints will not only increase the likelihood that their companies will survive during this period but to potentially even thrive.
Being willing to listen, and listening to diverse voices, are all important but there comes a time when leaders must consider everything they've been advised and then take decisive action. They can't always afford the luxury of waiting for perfect information or to be 100% confident about their choices. We have seen how grave the consequences can be when world leaders respond haltingly to the pandemic as in the case of the U.S. and the U.K., somewhat ironically given the pervasive stereotype that men are more decisive than women. Contrast this to Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen who, once informed, took action early and decisively to contain the virus. During crises, businesses also need leaders who can tread the often thin line between acting too soon and waiting too long. To again cite GM's Mary Barra, the CEO'S decisive actions during the company's 2014 crisis is widely agreed to have saved the company from almost certain catastrophe.
Although the leaders of the aforementioned nations took early, decisive action, they also took care to clearly and effectively communicate to people what they were doing and why. Chancellor Angela Merkel's scientific yet concise explanation of how coronavirus transmission works helped Germans understand why it was so critical to contain the virus as early as possible. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ardern has remarkably exhibited all the traits of good communication during a crisis by addressing her people clearly, consistently, and compassionately. In business, this can result in the "female leadership trust advantage" in which women leaders are able to win more trust in some crisis situations due to their interpersonal skills.
Even before COVID-19, in the wake of a horrific act of terrorism in her country, Prime Minister Ardern exhibited one of the most important traits that any leader can have during a crisis: empathy. Her "be kind" refrain during the pandemic fueled a spirit of altruism in New Zealand, inspiring many acts of charity. In business as well, studies show that in crisis situations empathetic and compassionate leaders perform better and inspire more loyalty, engagement, and productivity.
To be clear, it is not that leaders who are women have universally performed well during the COVID-19 pandemic, nor have leaders who are men universally done poorly. Far from it. Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte's bold crisis management has helped his nation endure despite early accusations that his lockdowns were an overreaction. In business, Marriott's Arne Sorenson has been a portrait of stellar crisis leadership, displaying many of the traits that have been discussed here. But due to a complex array of factors—perhaps some of them innate to their gender but many of them due to social and cultural causes—it has been hard to ignore the fact that many female world leaders have indeed been rising to the occasion in ways that some of the most prominent male leaders have not. By studying what they have been doing right, men and women business leaders alike can also lead their companies through these dark times towards a more hopeful future.
This article was originally published
WRITTEN BYNicole Smith