Are males or females better executive leaders? (1)

martial-arts-picWhen I was a Judo International, representing GB, in a time long before my grey hair appeared and the lower back pain kicked in, I would often join my peers discussing a philosophical question. Now, if you had been privy to the cohort of judoka that I rubbed along with back in the mid-1980s, you really wouldn’t have expected any of us to engage in philosophical discussion but the same scenario was presented and discussed ad nauseum. 

The question we argued over was this: If you had a highly experienced and skilled (in throws/holds) Judoka and put them in a contest against an equally experienced and skilled (in punches/kicks) Karateka, which of these would win in a contest with rules that allowed both styles to be used?

There are far too many errors in the question, let alone the underlying assumptions, to start to unpick it here, nevertheless, it was a working topic of much debate.

And that got me to thinking …

If you had a highly experienced and skilled male executive leader and you found a way to compare them to an equally experienced and skilled female executive leader counterpart, which of these would be considered more effective in their leadership role?

I have a view. But more of that later.

Let’s for starters accept that there are lots of flaws to the question – some philosophical (e.g. What is leadership? … YAWN! What is experience? … MORE interesting!) and some are practical (e.g. How would you ever find two leaders with exactly the same experience? Surely they would be doing the same job in the same organisation … SMILE-inducing!). But if we can put those things aside, what would we need in order to make such a comparison and who would win? (Oh!! Indulge me for a minute, I get that you can’t win in this context – it’s just a bit of thought-provoking fun!)

The first part of this post will look at how you would benchmark these two mythical leaders – important as a starting point; vital if we are going to be able to decide ultimately who might be the more effective leader.

Point scoring on Revenue

Deciding who wins a judo contest is relatively simple: Fighters are awarded differentiated points for throws and holds against their opponent or they can be penalised for foul play. The most points or the least penalties (or a combination) produces our winner. So, measuring, albeit relatively subjective, is possible.

Measuring executive leaders is a fascinating task. When measuring the effectiveness of senior leadership, many will draw the line quite simply at the bottom – because that is where shareholders and key stakeholders will be looking first. Profit, after all, is king (or queen). The simplicity of such a measure is helpful and clear. Are there any reasons why achieving a healthy bottom line would be different between our fictitious male and female leaders? All things being equal, I think not (But things in the Executive Leadership space are not quite equal, as I’m sure you’ll recognise.)

The weakness of using only the financial measures to see how effective leaders are, is that their apparent success, can be helped hugely by the vagaries of the market place. We all know CEOs who head highly profitable organisations, thanks in large part to economic fluctuations. It’s not that economic success isn’t really important – of course it is – but leader effectiveness is not wholly represented by this measure. Points gained here by leaders, need to be put in the context of the wider business cycles.

Point Scoring for Style

Some Executive Leaders will have been ‘measured’ within an inch of their life with various forms of psychometric tests such as MBTI(r) Insights (r) and other such tools over their careers. My own bias and my own philosophical view of human beings, is wholly opposed to the use of such tools in my own practice, whilst simultaneously acknowledging their usefulness for some leaders. There are also other measurement tools, such as 360 profiling,  that ask the leader and others, to reflect on the leader’s strengths and capabilities, as they are displayed at a given point in time. This is usually done against a leadership framework. These tools work well, as they help identify that the leader is not in a fixed state but a starting point from which further development is possible. These tools usually provide pointers to where development efforts should be directed.

Some of these profiling tools throw up statistically significant differences between the genders. One such difference that springs to mind is the higher percentage of Empathy that females tend to possess. They are often really good at putting themselves in other people’s shoes. This difference could be important in relation to leadership effectiveness. Similarly, an important factor that positively impacts male leaders is that they tend to have a stronger view about their abilities as transformational leaders than comparable women leaders. The good news is that (generalisations aside for a moment) male leaders are able to develop their empathic abilities and female leaders can positively develop their views of their transformational leadership self-efficacy. I know. I’ve seen leaders in both scenarios make incredible and lasting changes.

Similar but different

So, in our mythical leadership contest, it is possible to measure both the starting point and a given end point of a leaders’ effectiveness. The skills they possess and the impact that they make can be measured both directly and indirectly. Whilst every leader is an individual regardless of gender, for our purposes, both male and female leaders are clearly capable of scoring well in both direct and indirect measures – just differently. Organisations would do well to create cultures and environments where both our leaders could maximise the strengths they have and also have space to develop the areas within which they are not so strong.

In the next part of this mini-series, we’ll look at how leaders operate and practise the art of leadership. We’ll get to see if we can discover any key differences that might help us find a winner in our own leadership contest of the genders.

Glenn Wallis develops outstanding leaders who help contribute to the long-term success of organisations. If you would like to discuss how he can do that for your organisation, please contact him here.



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