Nearly 30 years ago, Sally Helgesen wrote what’s considered one of the first books on women’s leadership—“The Female Advantage: Women’s Ways of Leadership”—in which she shares a number of distinctive qualities observed in woman leaders, from placing a high value on relationships to developing a knack for direct communication.
This distinguishing set of “female qualities” came to be regarded as what many management experts call transformational leadership. A 2003 meta-analysis found that women were more likely than men to embody this style, favoring coaching and mentorship over command and control.
Conversely, research suggests that stereotypically male leaders project leadership through the lens of performance, a style referred to as transactional leadership. When asked about their approach to leading, men are inclined to speak about accomplishing tasks, with a focus on outcomes over process.
These findings are typically cast as positive news for women, and for good reason. Mounting data suggests that transformational leadership that prioritizes relationships and creative problem solving is better suited to the contemporary workplace. Indeed, a 2015 Gallup poll found that female managers are better at engaging employees than male managers. And an evaluation of more than 7,000 360-degree performance reviews found women leaders outranked male leaders in nearly every one of 16 leadership competencies.
But this oversimplification of leadership along the line of gender may do more harm than good, reinforcing widely held notions that women leaders are universally softer, more congenial bosses. It’s ironic for those of us in leadership who identify as women: first we had to “masculinize” our approach. Now, it’s de rigueur to “feminize” it. Further, oversimplifying gender itself as binary is equally problematic, leaving little space for the range of self-identification along the spectrum. In “Primal Leadership,” psychologist Daniel Goleman takes us beyond the traditional dichotomy of leadership—and gender—to offer six approaches to leading. These styles include visionary leadership to inspire and compel action; a coaching approach that focuses on developing individual team members; affiliative leadership that’s about conflict resolution and direct communication; democratic leadership that embraces listening and consensus-building; a pacesetting method that is less about the process and all about results, prioritizing excellence and expectations; and lastly, commanding leadership, which is best used in crisis when time is of the essence and direction is vital.
As women-identified leaders, we’d be well-served to heed Goleman’s wisdom. Rather than distilling leadership (and those who lead) into a false and unfair binary, it’s critical to understand the idiosyncrasies of our own natural style, and seek ways to optimize and adapt approaches to the teams we lead. We need to continue to cultivate the emotional intelligence and insight to “read a room,” and tailor our leadership to the unique personalities and people we encounter—not to simply conform to models deemed “fit” for a woman.
After all, as Alice Eagly, PhD, notes, “because the leader role itself carries a lot of weight in determining people’s behavior… the sex differences of women and men leaders are small.”
Henry Kissinger once quipped that, “nobody will ever win the battle of the sexes, because there’s too much fraternizing with the enemy.” He had a point. With an eagerness to separate by the lazy ease of gender, we’re missing important opportunities to embrace the kind of nuance and complexity that moves everyone forward. For leaders, that means acknowledging the wide range of leadership styles within our teams, and being intentional about bringing multiple perspectives and approaches to bear as we craft our approach and build teams that welcome—and demand—a diversity of leadership from wherever a team member may stand.
And that is when leadership becomes truly transformational.