Real Leaders

Who Is The Best American Woman Leader?


In the recent Republican debate candidates were asked what woman they want to see on our $10 bill. This turned out to be a real stumper. After a bit of hemming and hawing Jeb Bush sheepishly blurted out Margaret Thatcher. Although he admitted that he knew that the late prime minister was not an American citizen she was the most exemplary woman he could think of. Okay, right there, that’s what’s wrong with how most men evaluate leadership. Let me explain.

Last year the global consulting firm PwC asked mostly male business executives which leaders they most admired. The highest-ranking male was Winston Churchill and the highest-ranking female was Margaret Thatcher. Both these leaders are classic, extreme practitioners of hard power. Hard power behaviors are exactly what they sound like­­ – setting aggressive goals, a ruthless commitment to results and make-no-excuses accountability. Hard power political leaders often glorify war and personal sacrifice in the service of high ideals. Hard power is high on action, low on empathy. There’s no question that hard power is useful and even necessary at times. But it is very one-dimensional. It is best exercised in very simple situations where the law of untended effects will not sabotage the results of black-and-white thinking.

In this month’s Harvard Business Review the cover story is called The New Rules of Competition. The article lays out how the interconnectedness of global markets and the disruptive power of new technologies are making decision-making and strategic execution extremely challenging. Indeed, it makes the argument that no decisions are simple anymore.

A growing tide of research from places like MIT and McKinsey & Company is finding that soft power skills of social intelligence and holistic thinking combined with collaborative wisdom is a far better way to create effective strategy and drive results in today’s fog bound world.  I have written extensively about brain research that seems to validate that women’s brains are better designed to deal with complexity. MIT researcher Thomas Malone calls it Thinking Versatility. He has run over 156 experiments proving that women’s thinking versatility is better at complex problem-solving than male-dominant linear thinking.

Nevertheless, thousands of years of male dominated leadership have created an automatic bias that we associate decisiveness, risk-taking and confidence with successful leadership. It is sobering to note that Hitler, Stalin and Mao all exhibited an evil brilliance for hard power leadership. So perhaps there is more to leadership than simply imposing your vision and issuing orders.

The most effective leaders I have worked with are SMART Power leaders. They are mentally and emotionally ambidextrous. They mix the strengths of being goal driven with powerful social empathy and a core desire to make life better for others.

When we’re looking for people to lead our country in a complex world we should be looking for wisdom, open-mindedness, empathy and strength, not just bravado.

Some women who changed our country who deserve to be commemorated on a $10 bill are Abigail Adams, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Susan B. Anthony (and many other suffragettes), Rosa Parks, and Eleanor Roosevelt.  It is not the fault of women that men cannot think of great women leaders. Our primitive bias that mistakes overblown arrogance for genuine leadership has made us blind to the new possibilities created when women lead using their own strengths.

So what can you do?  Be the leader you would like to be led by. Be wise. Be open-minded. Be empathetic. And be strong. SMART Power leaders are in short supply… just look at the people running for president!

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