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Who makes a better leader, a man or a woman?

April 4, 2013

Article courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

By Cheryl Kuch

Ask that question of the average person. You may get the response that women make better leaders because women are more naturally empathetic and nurturing while men are all about strength and drive for results. Or you may get the response that men are better leaders, for exactly the same reasons. How real are these perceptions?

A recent study conducted by leadership consultants Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman set out to answer that question. Their research concluded that women are better leaders than men based on their analysis of 16 important leadership competencies.

In their study they asked peers, bosses and direct reports to rate 7,280 leaders, both men and women, against 16 competencies of effective leaders.  The authors claim that these competencies (examples: inspires and motivates others; champions change; establishes stretch goals; technical or professional expertise) represent the most important characteristics of effective leaders based on their 30 years of research. The study found that women scored higher than men on 15 of the 16 competencies rated and outscored men by a significant amount on 12 of the 16 competencies.

Perhaps most surprising is which of the competencies topped the list for women and showed the largest gap between the two sexes.  Two of the competencies, perhaps thought of as more stereotypical of men, taking initiative and driving for results, showed women scoring higher than men to the largest degree.  Not surprisingly, women also outscored men in the traditional nurturing competencies such as developing others, integrity, building relationships and self development. Men outscored women significantly on only one of the management competencies in the study, the ability to develop strategic perspective.

The study also confirmed the infrequency of women in leadership positions.  Most leaders (64 percent) are still men.  In top leadership positions, the gap is even greater. Seventy-eight percent are men; and of those who report to top leadership positions, 67 percent men. Only 12 of the Fortune 500 companies are run by women.

Are companies that do not employ women in leadership missing out?  If so, why?  Might it be because, according to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and author of the currently hot Lean In: Women, Work and The Will to Lead, women “lean out” of their ambitious goals as they try to find mates, marry, and have children? And they do it years before any such goals even come within their reach?

However, there may be more than just 16 leadership competencies that women contribute that are making differences in organizations.  A Harvard Business Review study found that the collective IQ of a team goes up when women are on it. Also, according to a Catalyst Report, companies with more women on their boards of directors outperformed those with fewer women in several key areas: 42 percent more return on sales, 53 percent more return on equity and 66 percent better return on invested capital.  

If women are better leaders than men, what makes them so?  Perhaps it is a woman’s command of the language and communication skills resulting in her ability to get her point across better.  Perhaps it can be linked to a woman’s higher level of Emotional Intelligence, as Daniel Coleman argues in his book of the same title.  Or perhaps it is the strong active listening skills typical of most women, as Meg Whitman argues in her book The Power of Many.

So, are men or women better leaders? The question may never have—and we may be better of without—a definitive answer. Of course there have been and still are great male leaders. But more and more research suggests that the many organizations seriously short of women in senior leadership roles need to focus on attracting or promoting more women to those roles.

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