DO WOMEN EXEMPLIFY MLA LEADERSHIP?
March 10th, 2021 - Written by MLARI Research Director, Karen E. Linkletter
“The most important task of an organization’s leader is to anticipate crisis. Perhaps not to avert it, but to anticipate it…You cannot prevent a major catastrophe, but you can build an organization that is battle-ready, that has high morale, and also has been through a crisis, knows how to behave, trusts itself, and where people trust one another.” – Peter Drucker, 1990
COVID 19 has certainly presented the world with a crisis to test heads of state, governors, and other leaders in the public and private sector. Researchers have been studying how various leaders have responded to the pandemic, with some focusing on the effective responses of national leaders who are women. Iceland, Taiwan, Germany, New Zealand, and Denmark are a few of the countries whose female heads of state managed to contain the virus early on and limit the financial and health impacts on their citizens.
Since women began to be more visible in positions of leadership about twenty years ago, much has been written about the “female leadership style.” It is interesting to note that many of the qualities attributed to women leaders appear not only to work particularly well in times of crisis, but also line up with Drucker’s concept of leadership as part of the practice of Management as a Liberal Art (MLA).
Recent literature on women leaders points to connections between the way women lead and the leadership skills Drucker emphasized as part of MLA. Consultants Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman used their own database of more than 60,000 reviews of business leaders to see how those leaders were evaluated before and after a crisis. They found that women rated more positively in 13 of 19 competencies for overall leadership effectiveness, and that this gender gap grew during a crisis. In other words, women tend to perform better during a crisis (https://hbr.org/2019/06/research-women-score-higher-than-men-in-most-leadership-skills).
What exactly are the skills that seem to be most effective in a crisis? They are not the skills that traditional models of leadership emphasize. The military-style, dominant, authoritarian model of the executive is not, in fact, the leader that is most effective in times of crisis. Avivah Wittenberg-Cox analyzed seven women leaders and their responses to COVID 19 and found that these heads of state modeled an “attractive alternative way of wielding power.” Their key leadership qualities? Truth, decisiveness, use of technology, and love/empathy. Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany (and a trained scientist), was transparent about the dangers of the virus from the beginning and emphasized testing and technology (https://www.forbes.com/sites/avivahwittenbergcox/2020/04/13/what-do-countries-with-the-best-coronavirus-reponses-have-in-common-women-leaders/?sh=2a2f96903dec).
Other researchers and authors point to women’s use of empathy, team building, people development, and role modeling as part of their leadership practice. In “7 Leadership Lessons Men Can Learn From Women,” Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Cindy Gallop argue that, rather than training women to be more assertive and self-promoting, we should learn from women’s leadership strengths. These include knowing one’s strengths and also one’s limitations (and how others on a team can better contribute), putting others before yourself, and transforming and elevating others. In the words of the authors, “Academic studies show that women are more likely to lead through inspiration, transforming people’s attitudes and beliefs, and aligning people with meaning and purpose” (https://hbr.org/2020/04/7-leadership-lessons-men-can-learn-from-women).
What did Drucker have to say about leadership? He did not write about different leadership styles between men and women. But he did articulate the important qualities of leaders who practice MLA:
- They have clear values that are in line with the organization and its mission. They model these values in their behavior and how they uphold the organization’s higher purpose, providing clarity and truth so that everyone in the organization understands that they are part of a larger vision.
- They value trust. They understand that trust in their leadership and authority must be earned, and that they must place trust in those in the organization (who also have a responsibility to earn that trust). Leadership cannot operate under MLA without a climate of trust.
- Leaders feel an enormous sense of responsibility for both the mission of the organization and to support those being led. Leadership is not about power and authority but serving and bringing out the best in those who are part of the organization.
The traditional models of charismatic leadership, control and corrective action, and individualistic decision making may work in some situations. But increasingly, research is showing us that the non-traditional, female-gendered models of leadership that emphasize Drucker’s MLA values of servant leadership, transparency and trust, empathy and concern for bringing out the best in those led, and clarity of values and mission are valuable in times of crisis. As Drucker said, we cannot prevent a major catastrophe, but we can build an organization ready to face it. And, as we celebrate Women’s History Month, it is perhaps time to finally acknowledge that women do not have to emulate men to be powerful leaders.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
KAREN E. LINKLETTER, PH.D. - MLARI ACTING RESEARCH DIRECTOR
Dr. Karen Linkletter is a researcher with the Joseph A. Maciariello Management as a Liberal Art Research Institute (MLARI), where she develops curriculum for CiAM and conducts research to advance the work of Peter F. Drucker. She and Dr. Maciariello co-authored the book Drucker’s Lost Art of Management: Peter Drucker’s Timeless Vision for Building Effective Organizations.
Dr. Linkletter has published over 20 articles and essays on a variety of historical topics. She has an M.B.A. and a PhD in History from Claremont Graduate University and received her A.B. from U.C. Berkeley. Dr. Linkletter taught in the American Studies Department at Cal State University, Fullerton for fifteen years. She is also a professional cellist, performing throughout southern California and teaching private students. She is an avid horseback rider and enjoys time with her horses, Spencer and Chance.