January 2, 1997

Good leadership: What's its Gender?

Effective leadership requires both stereotypically masculine and feminine responses

Jon Entine
Martha Nichols

If you believe the Body Shop's CEO Anita Roddick, "all business practices would improve immeasurably if they were guided by feminine principles' -- qualities like love and care and intuition." Since the 70s, women have been climbing the corporate ladder, often becoming high-visibility role models for a new style of "feminine" management. More recently, everyone from feminist academics to the mainstream press has celebrated a surge in what is thought of as female ways of leadership, particularly among charismatic entrepreneurs like Roddick and Donna Karan.

According to popular myth, women entrepreneurs lead their companies differently from the way the typical business guy does. And women managers empower and nurture employees, establish more egalitarian relationships and substitute a web-like corporate structure for the traditional command-and-control reporting hierarchies. Compassion, according to this belief, gets equal billing with competition.

This new fascination with female management is not just a woman thing. Male executives, too -- especially "new age" ones like Tom Chappell of Tom's of Maine, Howard Schultz of Starbucks, and Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's -- promote their companies as bastions of compassion, icons of socially responsible business and models of a gentler, more embracing form of capitalism. Even some of the most prominent corporate men -- such as "neutron" Jack Welch of General Electric -- have flourished in part because they balance traditional values with stereo-typically feminine ones. Welch is focused, disciplined and inspirational, much like the myopically intense Anita Roddick. But he is also renowned for his respect for those who manage for him -- in other words, his feminine quality of empowerment.

Politically correct rhetoric aside, good management can't be trivialized as either feminine or masculine. More to the point, focusing on entrepreneurs such as Roddick and Cohen ignores the corporate skills that now matter most: the ability to lead networked corporations, to feel comfortable with a loss of organizational control, to manage change responsibly. Indeed, the latest twist of selling "ethics," "meaning" and "feminine principles" breeds misconceptions about what successful corporate women really do.

In the Beginning Was the Web

The theoretical steam for this year's model of female leadership harks back to Carol Gilligan's pathbreaking work. In her 1982 classic In a Different Voice, Gilligan suggested that, rather than the male-based hierarchy, a web is the better metaphor for how women relate to others. And as the 80s ended and the 90s began, a less hierarchical style was beginning to be adopted by men in leadership, too. In her 1990 best-seller The Female advantage, management consultant Sally Helgesen noted that even old-line corporations "recognize that the old chain-of-command hierarchy, with its unspoken rules and codes, is too lumbering and muscle-bound for today's economy. It is fortuitous," Helgesen said, "that corporate restructuring is taking place at the very time when women are surging into the workplace in record numbers." Next, Judy B. Rosener bounced off both Gilligan and Helgesen in her much-read 1990 Harvard Business Review piece "Ways Women Lead." There she claimed that female executives "encourage participation, share power and information, enhance other people's self-worth and get others excited about their work."

Then there's Deborah Tannen. In Talking from 9 to 5: Women and Men in the Workplace, the popular linguist points out that women managers generally seek consensus. Tannen's perspective is sensible enough, and her observations ring true. Gender differences depend mostly on who has power, and, until recently, women have rarely been in a position to give orders. But by classifying certain management techniques as female-oriented, Tannen and others end up creating artificial gender distinctions. Of course, managers can't get away with simply barking orders, but they can't just nurture employees in a leaderless collective, either. Good management is rooted in day-to-day circumstances, particular industries and specific markets.

Yin, Yang and "Attila the Hen"

Now that women have begun to garner power, filling nearly half of all managerial positions by some counts, many don't opt for the feminine, nurturing model. In fact, most successful executives (of either gender) demonstrate a blend of several different styles.

Take Carol Bartz of Autodesk, Inc., who was hyped by the business press as a "feminine" leader when she became CEO in 1992. The former VP at Sun Microsystems was hailed as a team-builder with a woman's touch who could successfully reorganize the faltering California software company. The success that was predicted has come to pass.

But Bartz doesn't see herself so much as a feminine role model as a professional change agent and manager. On Bartz's watch, Autodesk has diversified its product line and increased net revenues from $285 to $534 million. In an interview that appeared online in Digital Woman, Bartz delivered a self-assessment that sounds not unlike Jack Welch: "I spent a lot of time in the first three years on this job settling into how a CEO should act.... I was too opinionated, I would come to a decision a little fast, I think I intimidated people, and I've worked hard to not have those three things happen. In the last year, people tell me I'm doing a lot better."

Bartz has succeeded not because of a touchy-feely feminine style but because she's a leader and a solid executive, with a willingness to make difficult decisions. "I've been called Attila the Hen," she notes wryly. "I'd call myself tough but fair, very demanding, with no fear of firing people. As to why I've made it through the glass ceiling, I keep performing and, when necessary, I take intelligent risks."

Men Are from Venus, Women Are from Mars

Effective leadership obviously involves both rational and emotional responses, even if this is news to some men. Business guru Warren Bennis now calls leaders "pragmatic dreamers" who are "altruistic," and Stephen Covey trumpets "principles of empathic communication." Hip male executives can talk about feelings because their authority is rarely questioned. But as women in the corporate arena know, this particular game can be a no-win one for them. They have been marked as too emotional from the get-go, and somehow talking about feelings throws an extra layer of mud on the glass ceiling.

And certainly many women still need the advice Kathleen Reardon, PhD, professor of management and organization at the University of Southern California, gives in They Don't Get It, Do They? Reardon emphasizes the advice given in the early days of the female executive, telling corporate women they need to learn how to speak up when they're insulted, not to couch their ideas in emotional terms, to say the "Big NO." In other words, act like their male colleagues.

The irony here is that the rules for everyone keep shifting. For decades, business observers have wrestled with integrating "hard" and "soft" managerial styles. Empowerment, sympathetic listening, caring for others -- all those vaunted "feminine" techniques -- are not new to the annals of management, or even particularly female. In the hoary 1945 article "But Who Is to Lead the Leader?" John S. Tomajan earnestly told Harvard Business Review readers, "The true leader will be entirely selfless. He will feel his responsibility as the heart of the business family. He will always think of his business as an organization of people united with each other to satisfy human needs."

Heart...family...satisfying others. Aside from that unvarying "he," it sure sounds familiar. There's no denying that such techniques have gained currency in recent years. Is that because women have swarmed into the workplace or because, with increasing decentralization, the global economy and the high-tech labor force, the times were simply ripe for such a change of style -- one that many of today's executives acknowledge even if they don't call it a female-oriented web?

Kathleen Reardon's advice -- learn to talk "their language" -- is refreshingly direct and may help individual women get ahead. But she says nothing about how corporations themselves are changing. Reardon gives the nod to Gilligan-inspired supportive or relational leadership styles in "some situations," and she says that pretending to be one of the guys can take its toll on women. Her main message is go with the flow -- or leave. But what the flow is depends on the company you keep, and work for.

Women Who Run with the Green Wolves

Reardon's message is not about change, particularly -- it's about survival. In fact, plenty of women are deserting corporations and starting their own businesses in order to do things differently. The media's entrepreneurial darlings -- such as Roddick and Susie Tompkins of Esprit -- seem to have it all: passion, meaning in life, "feminine" management structures, control. There's just one problem: It's not true.

Roddick, Tompkins, Donna Karan and other female business legends are brilliant marketers. They excel in building strong brand images based on their personas. But none of them is a steady, day-to-day manager. Like many male entrepreneurs -- Apple founder Steve Jobs and Stephen Case, the embattled chairman of America Online, come to mind -- they are long on inspiration and short on organization. Hype aside, these female superstars are driven by the same things that have propelled men to the top: ego and money. Entrepreneurial myopia, so terrific at lifting a company off the ground, isn't usually the right management stuff for keeping it afloat.

That's the paradox of leadership, says law professor Andrea Giampetro-Meyer, who has studied evangelical companies like Ben & Jerry's and The Body Shop. She claims that good leaders are compassionate and self-reflective, as well as charismatic. But many "new age"-type visionaries (male and female) fall victim to narcissism and self-promotion. Innovative and generous at times, they can also be arrogant and mean-spirited. Giampetro-Meyer calls this the "dark side" of leadership. It can result in organizational decay if the leader' passion isn't transformed into a mature business with checks and balances.

"Potential leaders should train themselves to adapt to the needs of the organization," advises Kathleen Reardon. "This isn't to say they should be schizophrenic, shifting rapidly from one style to another, but they should be prepared to respond to a variety of demands, contexts, and goals. There is no inherent male advantage here."

In fact, there may be a female advantage, but not because women executives are naturally more emotional, flexible or "selfless." Most women, and all those who start with little power, learn early on to rely on other people. And this reliance -- the need to negotiate complicated relational webs -- is what today's corporate landscape calls for.

Toward a Corporate Ethic of Care

Carol Gilligan's "ethic of care" (her belief that women's decisions are not based on abstract concepts of morality but on the relationships they build) is now something of a buzzword in feminist circles, but it doesn't fit every executive's style. Yet Gilligan's work does suggest some alternatives for the new corporation. Her emphasis on building connections with others -- on creating relationships which require, she writes, "a kind of courage and emotional stamina which has long been a strength of women, insufficiently noted and valued" -- can provide valuable illumination on how to manage people when companies expand and organizational boundaries grow fuzzy.

It's clear that business leaders can't get away with quixotic leadership or simply being pals with their employees, at least not for long. To the degree that it's possible in a competitive environment, a corporate ethic of care has to mean more than being a charismatic fire-breather, a good mother, or a friend to your employees. Perhaps the best way to incorporate the brand of feminist theory inspired by Gilligan into management practice may be to observe what some less showy but equally successful women like Carol Bartz do. and take note of the the web of professional relationships they rely on.

It's clear that gender pride can carry a manager only so far. Glorifying traditional feminine qualities, empowering as it may seem at first blush. can end up perpetuating the stereotypes women executives have worked so hard to break down. Neither men nor women have a lock on integrity, nor on the ability to inspire a team, develop good personal relationships and establish a flexible and accountable corporate structure -- the diverse qualities all executives will need to make businesses thrive in the future.

1997 National Association for Female Executives Inc.