Written by
Lady Kitty Chisholm

Published
14 Oct 2015

Women's leadership in the 21st century

14 Oct 2015 • by Lady Kitty Chisholm

Setting clear objectives

‘Command and Control’ styles of management work well when the objectives are straightforward timely tasks – ‘put out a fire’ or ‘evacuate a sinking ship,’ however they tend to work less well when you are trying to manage brains. When your financial bottom line depends on innovation, creativity and sensitivity to customers, in complex, sometimes chaotic, global environments, giving orders to highly intelligent people, who are motivated by their own well thought out priorities and values, doesn’t work. 

Motivating people to use their brains to their best abilities, to exceed even their own expectations, is what twenty-first century leadership is about - and could it be that women may be better at achieving this than men?
A number of research reports have underlined the effectiveness of women at the top. McKinsey’s 2012 study, conducted during the 2008-2010 financial crisis demonstrated companies across all sectors, in both the USA and Europe with more women on their executive boards outperformed those with fewer women. 

Credit Suisse’s research institute, similarly commented “In testing the performance of 2,360 companies globally over the last six years, our analysis shows that it would on average have been better to have invested in corporates with women on their management boards than in those without.” 

The research that many of these reports are based on took place during a period of global financial turbulence. It may be that when times are good, it’s easy to do well, but in times of crisis and uncertainty is when gender diversity shows the greatest benefits.

Why might that be?

1.  ‘Leading brains’, especially when times are hard, needs to be based on establishing relationships of trust. You are more likely to gain trust if you show self-control and consideration for others –not just yourself. There is little evidence around gender differences in self-control or self-management. A significant number of studies have shown, however, that women are genuinely more concerned and more motivated by helping others and invest more in developing their staff.

2. Women’s brains are wired differently to men’s - ground-breaking research by the University of Pennsylvania [1], shows that women’s brains have more connections between hemispheres, whereas men’s have more connections within hemispheres. This plausibly underlies women’s superior ability to use both intuitive and logical thinking in problem solving, and men’s more direct links between stimulus and action. When dealing with very complex, uncertain situations, with a large number of variables such as a rapidly changing global financial situation and conflicting information from many sources, each with different values and perspectives, this ability to draw more easily on such a combination of the brain’s resources can be invaluable.

3. Women are more inclusive than men. As senior leaders, they lean towards involving more people in decision making. Traditionally this was perceived as a weakness or indecision. The more we know about decision making however, the more we realise that taking into account a diversity of perspectives is a way of mitigating bias and improving the quality of decisions. 

It is self-evident that complex, knowledge-based, fast moving companies will be full of people with knowledge, expertise, talents and skills that you as a leader do not have. Inclusivity, making people feel a valued member of a community, even more, of a ‘family’, increases engagement, enhances motivation and delivers commitment to a common purpose. Valuing differences and really listening to, acknowledging and harnessing diversity is the way to fulfil an organisational vision and mission when you are leading highly intelligent, highly motivated individuals, with valuable expertise.

4. Today’s leader needs to combine superb communication skills with empathy for those who are listening. Women’s brains are better geared to language skills than men’s, and women’s emotional systems, (sometimes known as the limbic system) are more powerful than men’s, thus enabling a more empathetic understanding of others. That empathy is also more likely to make them better listeners, another key leadership trait.

5. Women’s motivation to help others means they are more likely to find their greatest rewards in collective endeavours. How often have you heard really able, talented women say “I can’t blow my own trumpet, it just isn’t me” and yet they promote and champion a colleague or member of their staff with great conviction, passion and eloquence. Women often attribute their own success to luck and others’ to talent and hard work, or having led a successful project, give credit to the whole team. Too much of this approach is a weakness, and reduces a woman’s chances of reaching leadership positions [2], but the right amount of acknowledging the efforts of others is a huge benefit brought to an organisation which depends on the performance of brains for its bottom line by its female leaders.

Diverse styles

It’s recommended that modern companies need a good mix of both male and female leaders, remembering that there will be significant overlap between them in terms of their styles and capabilities, as well as differences, and that it is harnessing a wide diversity of views that helps deliver better decisions.

Kitty Chisholm co-authored ‘Neuroscience for Leadership; Harnessing the Brain Gain Advantage’ which was published earlier this year by Palgrave MacMillan


[1] Ragini Verma et al., 2013
[2] Janjuha-Jivraj, S and Chisholm, K, Championing Women Leaders, to be published by Palgrave Macmillan in November 2015