Differences in styles of men and women in leadership
Good leadership doesn’t have a gender.
When Fortune 500 companies wish to learn the styles and traits of Level 5 leaders (the highest leadership level) they can study plenty of examples of exceptional women leaders and extraordinary men leaders. The focus is firmly on the leadership styles and qualities of these men and women, not their cis-gender status.
Healthy work cultures thrive because they promote acceptance and diversity. There are benefits in your people seeing both men and women in leadership roles - celebrated for their different styles (non-binary leaders too, for that matter).
Key is getting better at leading, no matter your style
As long as your work culture prioritises learning and leadership development, the style differences of men and women leaders won't be make-or-break for your work culture. What's important is how each strives to become a better leader. This is what informs your work culture, and keeps employees motivated, productive, and committed.
Here, we’ll look at good leadership and the impact of having men and women leadership styles in the workplace.
What are the Key Differences Between Men and Women in Leadership?
There is the temptation to generalise when discussing style differences between genders.
Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, in our interview and her co-authored book "Women and Leadership", says “It is tempting to say that the rise of empathetic, nurturing, team-building women leaders would give us a kinder and gentler world. But this reasoning bakes in gender-stereotyping of women.”
“Some women leaders would be hard, demanding and competitive," she adds. "Some men would be self-effacing, team-orientated and nurturing.”
Research does show some tendencies
Nevertheless, a meta-analysis by University of Colombo researchers says it can be argued:
- Transformational, collaborative, egalitarian. Women managers display more transformational leadership qualities than men, and studies by others showed they leaned towards using interpersonal skills, actively instigating discussions with those involved in order to reach a consensus decision, avoiding confrontation by the use of encouragement and compromise, and concern for and understanding of people, seeking to develop them and adopting a participative approach.
- Transactional, individualistic, hierarchical. Male managers are more represented than women in the command-and-control or transactional leadership styles, and also the laissez-faire (hands-off) style of leadership. Transactional leadership style uses rewards and punishments for good or poor performance. This style values order and structure. Transactional leaders manage “by exception.” This can be active or passive. (Howell & Aviolio, 1993). Active leaders continually evaluate performances of employees. On the other hand, the passive, laissez-faire style is hands-off until a problem needs intervention.
As well, and while not true of every individual, studies have shown men pay more attention to power cues and are more likely than women to engage in dominant or aggressive behaviours, to initiate negotiations, and to self-select into competitive environments, behaviours likely to facilitate professional advancement. (2)
Importance of seeing different styles at work
So in a team with both male bosses and female bosses, team members might get exposure to these kinds of key differences between men and women in leadership positions.
Why is this important? Because embracing the differences of male and female leaders signals that people of all genders are equally capable of effective leadership. By seeing diversity in action, each team member is more likely to see a leadership trajectory for themselves. This is vital for a healthy work culture. 83% of businesses say it’s important to develop leaders at all levels but 77 % of organisations report that leadership is lacking. (Apollo Technical).
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Transformational vs. Transactional Leadership Styles
Former PepsiCo CEO and chair Indra Nooyi is considered one of the most respected transformational leaders in the world. In her interview with Growth Faculty on her autobiography “My Life in Full'' Indra Nooyi described how she “did the basics very well” but also insisted that “each employee had to be treated with an emotional connection.” Her leadership style famously included her asking everyone to “remember that employees are mothers, fathers, daughters, and sons.”
Supportive of employees
Transformational leadership style is just one of 10 leadership styles widely seen in organisations today. Transformational leaders mentor and empower individuals and often are great at building trust and confidence. Female leaders, often represented in the transformational leadership ranks, tend to be more democratic in their style, and often gear energy into supporting the efforts of employees.
Transformational leaders have the multiplier traits described by our Global Headliner speaker Liz Wiseman in her book “Multipliers” that encourage employees to work at their best potential.
On the other hand, men tend towards a command-and-control, or transactional style of leadership.
Transactional leaders break down work processes into a series of steps with rewards tied to their completion.
In “Great at Work” and our interview with its author Morten Hanson, we learned that men displaying both “forceful champion” and “smart grit” traits were held in higher esteem and performed best in gaining the support of other people.
These include the transactional-style behaviours of using smart tactics and practical techniques to overcome opposition and inspire others, such as “reading” others and taking steps to convince them to support a cause.
Like other leadership styles, transactional leaders may use “purpose” or “mission statements” to inspire people to commit to projects and goals.
What Do We Think?
Leadership styles of men and women may differ due to what works under the critical gaze of others. Research cited by Morten Hanson shows that when competent women assert themselves, as he says forceful champions do, they risk criticism (such as “really aggressive woman”).’ Men receive higher ratings for the same behaviour (“Wow, smart guy”). To inspire others to follow you, it may be necessary to adapt your leadership style so that you engender trust. This could be tilting towards a more transformational or transactional style - it depends on which is more suited to your workforce.
Collaboration & Cooperation vs. Performance & Individual Achievement
One of our speakers uses the term “super-collaborators” to describe people who listen, make connections, and share.
“They’re the people who keep family members in touch with each other, who make neighbourhoods safe and functional, who make organisations smart and responsive.” - Margaret Heffernan, “A Bigger Prize.”
While this diversity expert did not say if men or women leaders were more likely to be super-collaborators, female leaders do tend to promote collaboration and cooperation. In a workplace setting, they encourage teamwork to reach the business goals.
Being good at collaboration and cooperation does not mean being conflict-averse, Margaret Heffernan says.
“Great collaborators do conflict well….it’s how we stretch, test, and develop new ideas and possibilities.”
Rewarding individual achievement
While many are highly skilled at teamwork and collaboration, male leaders tend to reward individual achievement based on performance.
Our October 2022 Global Headliner speaker Liz Wiseman in Impact Players shares how CEOs described their top performers:
- “He saw people spending too much time on presentation slides, developed a tool to fix that, and rolled it out globally. He saved us hundreds of hours of work.”
- “Repeatedly pivots to become the expert in what is needed.”
Focussing on performances such as these, male leaders reward followers with bonuses, merits, or recognition within the organisation. While encouraging employees to reach their full potential, this can create an environment in which sparks competition between employees.
What Do We Think?
Leading the post-pandemic “new employee” will call for both styles of leadership says one of our speakers. In our interview with Japanese executive Takako Hirata, author of “The Virtual Leader”, we learned that post-pandemic employees, to some extent, want it all. They want to have more say in where they’d like to work, the kind of work they would like to do, the kind of perks a workplace should offer, and the kind of managers they would like to be overseen by.
They want individual recognition but a sense of community, they want flexibility, but they want “substantial” work relationships (suggestive of strong collaboration and cooperation). In other words, a bit of both men and women leadership styles.
Egalitarian vs. Hierarchical Structure
It’s not surprising that the group that makes up fewer than 9% of Fortune 500 CEOs (women leaders) would favour egalitarian over hierarchical workplace structures.
Egalitarian work structures are collaborative and cooperative by nature. Workers form into self-managing teams with an egalitarian structure, where people take responsibility and make decisions themselves.
Environmental company Oview in The Netherlands is an SME with an egalitarian structure. There’s no boss, just people. They “choose what they like to do” and then “do what they’re supposed to do.” Once a week the company has a “general assembly” to talk about mission, progress, achievements and problems.
Pyramid with CEO at the top
A hierarchical structure has a pyramid-shaped organisational structure, with the CEO at the top. Many large companies and government agencies have adopted this structure with great results in the past.
“It provides great clarity for organisations that operate with a fair deal of hierarchy and need a clear chain-of-command to act fast,” writes Kevan Lee, VP of marketing at media agency Buffer. On average, more men in leadership positions have historically tended to implement a hierarchical workplace structure.
What Do We Think?
The pandemic taught us that employees want and need more autonomy and flexibility, and are capable of motivating themselves to do productive work. But I’m not sure that means doing away with a boss altogether. An inclusive, inspiring, and empathetic leader can multiply the intelligence of their team. Rather than the black/white, his/her, binary nature of leadership structure, modern leaders are learning that a diverse and hybrid workplace in both a physical and structural sense can work for both leaders and their people.
Indirect vs. Direct Communication
Women are masterful at indirect communication, and historically they’ve had to be. We learned in our interview with Laura Liswood in her book about dominant and non-dominant groups The Elephant and the Mouse: Moving Beyond the Illusion of Inclusion to Create a Truly Diverse and Equitable Workplace that the mouse (representing a non-dominant person) needs to sense the mood of the dominant elephant “to figure out how to placate it, work around it, distract it, humour it, and manoeuvre artfully.”
Indirect communication can work well in situations that call for discretion, trust, and empathy, but direct communication may be best for when hard conversations and radical candour are needed.
Clear focus on expectations
While there are always exceptions, men, by and large, favour direct communication which closely relates to the transactional leadership style i.e. having a clear focus on expectations and performance so employees understand what their role is. When a frank conversation needs to be had (i.e. regarding performance) direct communication can work well. However, it can be seen as negative by employees who struggle to accept direct feedback, especially when they may have indirect communication styles.
What Do We Think?
Communication skills are at the core of how you choose to lead others. For a start, you cannot over-communicate what your vision for the organisation is.
As Whitney Johnson, author of “Build an A-Team”, tells us, none of us is as comprehensible or knowable as we like to think we are.
“Communicate your expectations clearly,” she says.
Researcher and author Brené Brown puts it this way Clear is Kind, Unclear is Unkind.
Whether you choose to give this message in a clear but nuanced way (indirect) or a clear, direct way is a personal choice. Either way, be clear. A hybrid model of men and women leadership styles to suit the circumstances may be best.
The Elephant & the Mouse: The Importance of Equity and Diversity
Both male and female leaders belong in the workplace. So do non-binary leaders, and leaders who identify outside these constructs. Leadership and work cultures are only strengthened by diversity.
It is the very fact that leadership styles, qualities, and motivations of men and women leaders differ (and can be celebrated) that enriches the culture of workplaces.
In “The Elephant and the Mouse: Moving Beyond the Illusion of Inclusion to Create a Truly Diverse and Equitable Workplace” Laura Liswood highlights the importance of understanding and embracing the differences between people (at all levels).
“Ultimately, we’re looking for change, aren’t we? And change goes from the unthinkable, to the impossible, to the inevitable,” says Laura.
Here are Laura’s starting points to move beyond the illusion of inclusion:
1. For women, make sure you have a sense that you are entitled to lead, entitled to your positions, you’re entitled to state your views - just as men are.
2. For men and women: Be a wing person. Do active intervention.
3. Try to travel outside of your own worldview. Be curious. Seek to understand other people’s ‘grandmas’ (ways of viewing the world).
Not embracing differing styles and qualities denies your work culture the benefits of these other worldviews. Growth is only possible when people are learning, and learning to work with men and women leaders (and all the differences they bring to the table) is healthy in our diverse world.
Want to Find Your Own Workplace Leadership Qualities?
Leaders right now are experiencing the ‘wild and scary but ultimately exhilarating ride’ predicted in futurist Salim Ismail’s “Exponential Organisations” written eight years ago. He and his co-authors predicted “rate of learning” would come to be the mainstream measure of individual, team, or startup progress. We now know the most effective women and men leaders are those continually learning better leadership styles and qualities that will help their teams move through the changed business landscape thrown up by the pandemic.
Leadership learning to improve your skills
Growth Faculty understands the world needs leadership learning that brings out the best qualities of both men and women - there is no right or wrong or ‘better’ leadership style.
To find out what your style of leadership is, or to improve on your own skills and that of your team, our Leadership Pass gives you unique access to the world’s brilliant minds on leadership. For $398 AUD you get a year’s worth of leadership learning, with 40 events and masterclasses, book club events and learnings from the world’s most successful leaders.
We have a range of speakers who understand what it takes to become a great leader. They embrace different leadership styles but share a passion for improving the quality of leadership, many focusing on the need to embrace diversity and equality. Check out our what some of our favourite speakers for Growth Faculty have had to say:
- D.A.C Suranga Silva, B.A.K.M. Mendis, 2017, Male vs Female Leaders: Analysis of Transformational, Transactional & Laissez-faire Women Leadership Styles, University of Colombo
- F.Gino C.Wilmuth, A.Wood, 2015, Compared to men, women view professional advancement as equally attainable, but less desirable, Cornell University
- Growth Faculty speakers and authors