Female leadership traits make for better organisations

By Dave Hickey

Most of us have a picture in our heads of what a good leader looks like or at least how they behave and what they do for an organisation.

This is often shaped by our own experiences of good bosses or bad bosses; from our engagement in sport or other non-work activities; or from role models in books, TV or cinema.

If you’ve been lucky enough to work for a great leader, it’s a great feeling!

But how often do we stop to analyse what it is those leaders do that makes them great? What are the specific traits that make them good, and the others not-so-good? And how did the latter get to be where they are if they’re not really that good?

I didn’t give this much thought until we started working on Leading At The Edge, but when I looked back on all the people I’ve worked for and with over 40 years, I identified that some of the most effective leaders I had experience of were women.

That in itself isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be, a surprise, but what is, is the fact there have been so few women in senior leadership positions when they’re so clearly effective at it.

So, I set out to find out why.

In an article late in 2019, McKinsey reported that most organisations define leadership as the traditional, stereotypically masculine style exemplified by the majority of their senior-most male and some female colleagues.1

Some organisations appreciate other leadership characteristics, such as listening and collaboration, but negate that message by promoting primarily on the basis of more traditional types of leadership behaviour, such as authoritative decision making, control, and corrective action.

An HBR article first published in 2015 was even more trenchant in its comments: “the real problem is not a lack of competent females; it is too few obstacles for incompetent males, which explains the surplus of overconfident, narcissistic, and unethical people in charge.” 2

As a consequence, gender differences in leadership effectiveness (what it takes to perform well) are out of sync with gender differences in leadership emergence (what it takes to make it to the top). Indeed, research shows that the prevalence of male senior leaders is not a product of superior leadership talent in men.

With this in mind, would it not be more logical to flip the suggested remedy: instead of encouraging women to act like male leaders, we should be asking men in power to adopt some of the more effective leadership behaviours more commonly found in women. This would create a pool of better role models who could pave the way for both competent men and women to advance.

McKinsey research into the leadership behaviours that are most effective for addressing future challenges concludes that the traditional behaviours of control, corrective action, and individualistic decision making are the least critical for future success.

Much more important are intellectual stimulation (which men and women apply in equal measure), and five other traits (inspiration, participative decision making, setting expectations and rewards, people development, and role modelling) applied more frequently by women.

Leading At The Edge Online features among its eight segments three powerful women who will share their leadership insights with the audience on the day.

Iza Login – The entrepreneur who developed the Talking Tom mobile App and sold the business for a billion dollars in 2018.

Clare Desbonnet – Network Galway and Ireland award-winner and advocate for women advancing their careers in science & technology.

Kelly Swanson – TV Host, Comedienne and Story Creator

Tickets for Leading At The Edge Online are available for €69 plus VAT until Friday 18th September after which they will only be available for €99 plus VAT. Book here.


1McKinsey Quarterly, December 2019
27 Leadership Lessons Men Can Learn From Women, HBR April 2020