M-F Leadership Styles, Effectiveness of

[This post originally appeared on 30 Sept 2008. If you'd like to see the comments it engendered on its first appearance, you can do so here.]

In my last post, Success Tip #140, I caught myself in an un-rare but un-intentional sexist moment. While discussing crisis leadership, I used typically male language and imagery—including the all-male football analogy!

Leadership and the SexesBy coincidence, the day after the post, my mail included Leadership and the Sexes: Using Gender Science to Create Success in Business, a book by Michael Gurian and Barbara Annis. The book is a marvel. The authors begin, "This book is about the practical application of information on male/female brain differences in every aspect of your corporate life, from workplace comfort to competitive edge to the corporate bottom line."

The most important phrase being, per me, "brain differences"—that is, the book is derivative of the new brain sciences, not anecdotal evidence. (The book is strongly endorsed by the author of another book I found of inestimable value, The Female Brain, by Louann Brizendine, M.D.)

The evidence is brain-science based, but a social-psychological experiment provides a nice snapshot of the findings. What follows is from a sidebar titled, "Gender Experiments Surprise Even the Experts":

"In the 1990s, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation/CBC created a short film that recorded an experiment in leadership styles between women and men. CBC didn't tell the participants the objective of the work they would do that day; the director simply divided the male and female leaders into two teams, and gave those team leaders the same instructions: build an adventure camp. The teams were set up in a somewhat militaristic style at first, including team members wearing uniforms, but also with the caveat in place that the teams could alter their style and method as they wished as long as they met the outcome in time.

"Leader one immediately created a rank-and-file hierarchy and gave orders, even going so far as to assert authority by challenging members on whether they had polished their shoes.

"Leader two did not have the 'troops' line up and be inspected, but instead met with the other team members in a circle, asking 'How are we doing? Are we ready?' 'Anything else we should do?' 'Do you think they'll test us on whether we've polished our shoes?' Instead of giving orders, leader two was touching team members on the arm to reassure them.

"As part of the program, CBC arranged for corporate commentators to watch the teams prepare. Initially the commentators (mostly men) were not impressed by the leadership style of leader two; the second team wasn't 'under control,' members weren't lined up, and they 'lacked order' (or so it seemed). The commentators predicted that team two would not successfully complete the task. Yet when the project was completed, team two had built an impressive adventure camp as good as team one's, with some aspects that were judged as better.

"When debriefing their observations, the commentators noticed that when team one was building the structures for the camp, there had been discord regarding who was in charge and who had completed which job and who hadn't. Team one exhibited a lack of communication during the process of completion that created problems (for example, 'Wasn't someone else supposed to do this?').

"Team two, on the other hand, took longer to do certain things, but because of its emphasis on communication and collaboration during the enactment of the task (such as 'Let's try this' and 'What do you think about that?'), the team met the goal of building the adventure camp in its own positive way, and on time."

There is for me a profoundly important "bottom line" here. Not that one style is better than another, but that virtually every proclamation we make ought to be informed by gender differences. In my speeches, for example, I often find myself rambling on ad nauseam about the importance of relentless relationship building—a stunning insight for a male to make or take on board (I overstate ever so slightly), and boringly obvious beyond words to most of the female participants. I am not suggesting that every phrase be presented in two languages, but I am suggesting that the topic ought not be far beneath the surface. Based on my own experience, I will say that we (i.e., me) will not necessarily improve (as in, exhibit increased sensitivity) over time; hey, with the chips down last week, Joe Montana and the SF 49ers were my immediate benchmarks.

I urge you to read the book—there is a lot at stake, and an opportunity to achieve lasting competitive advantage. From an increasingly robust body of research, we know for sure (as sure as sure can ever be) that diverse teams—diversity on any and all dimensions—outperform homogenous teams. We equally have to know how to maximize the diversity advantage—the reward can be performance leaps, not just modest improvements.