What Should We Be Learning From the Research on Women as Crisis Leaders?
By Dr. Hal M. Lewis
In the months since the Coronavirus made its unwelcome appearance on our shores, we have witnessed a plethora of articles designed to teach about leading in extremis. Several of these have focused specifically upon the performance of women leaders in crisis. While not without some academic controversy, many of these articles provide convincing evidence that women are well positioned to lead effectively, some argue, more effectively than men, during difficult times. Forbes (April 13, 2020) names seven countries with “the best Coronavirus responses,” each of which has a female head of state. A recent NY Times piece (May 15,2020) holds that, “countries led by women seem to be particularly successful in fighting the coronavirus.” And, while acknowledging that there are multiple factors at stake, the Guardian (April 25, 2020) asserts that “women are ‘disproportionately represented to a rather startling degree’ among countries managing the crisis well…”
These post-COVID 19 analyses are consistent with earlier research, such as the 2009 Mackenzie and Company report called, “Women leaders, a competitive edge in and after crisis,” and the work of Dr. Corinne Post, Management Professor at Lehigh University, who with her colleagues identified a “trust advantage” in women who lead in crisis (Psychology of Women Quarterly, February 27, 2019).
Consider the irony. The nonprofit sector is facing a crisis of indisputable proportions and evidence suggests that women are better prepared to lead in times such as these. Yet, while approximately 70-80% of nonprofit workforces are made up of women, their numbers are paltry at the executive level. (Some estimates suggest that in large nonprofits, women represent only 18% of chief executive officers. The situation is even worse in the corporate world where the latest numbers indicate that a mere 7.4% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women.) If, as McKinsey and Company found, “Leadership behaviors more frequently adopted by women leaders are critical to navigating through crisis and beyond,” then the absence of female executives, particularly at this time, stands out as both an indictment and a challenge for those who care deeply about the not-for-profit world.
This is not a situation that can be fixed overnight; clearly, there are no magic wands to wave, otherwise leading scholars and journalists would long ago have ceased decrying the enormity of gender inequality in our field. Despite the complexity of the situation, however, Machiavelli’s advice to “Never waste the opportunity offered by a good crisis,” has special resonance at this time. As an academic who studies leadership generally and the role of gender in leadership, in particular, and as an executive coach working with nonprofit CEOs and boards, I believe there are things our sector ought to be considering at this very moment. I offer these recommendations understanding full well that, if this time is like others, there will be some who greet the insights of a cismale with more than a bit of skepticism. That having been acknowledged, I offer the following three thoughts as things we should be doing in the near term.
First, CEO search committees must be appropriately sensitized to the data that suggest women bring an important set of skills to leading during and following a crisis, and that this leadership exists in many women even those who are not prime ministers. According to an April 1, 2020 Harvard Business Review analysis, the particular skillsets that favor women leaders in a crisis include empathy, humility, and the ability to earn and engender trust. Given the current and likely future state of our world, committees should be prepared to probe for these assets throughout the interview process. Moreover, committee members must own their preconceived notions of leadership and be willing to acknowledge conscious and unconscious biases. The long-standing notion “that leaders should be aggressive and forward and domineering (previously cited NY Times article, 5.15.2020)” disadvantages female candidates, and is precisely not what our sector needs as we seek to come out of this unprecedented crisis. As Jennifer Martineau and Portia Mount point out in their book, Kick Some Glass, “Because traditional images of leadership are associated with qualities that are viewed as male qualities, people often envision a man rather than a woman when asked to think about good leaders.”
Of course, simply enlightening search committees about the research on women as crisis leaders and helping members to acknowledge their prejudices will hardly be enough to reverse decades of inequity in the hiring of organizational CEOs. And besides, exactly whose job is it to do the educating? But thoughtful search processes that are properly constituted with equal numbers of men and women, and expertly directed, can help identify the skillsets required to lead nonprofit organizations in a post-pandemic world. Doing so, coupled with an exploration of current findings about crisis leadership can help, in the words of Bronznick, Goldenhar and Linsky (20008), to level the playing field.
Secondly, even if a CEO search is not on the table at present, the mostly male CEOs and board members who run America’s nonprofits must find meaningful ways to provide the women on their team with real opportunities to lead through crisis. Here I refer not to any kind of well-intentioned tokenism, but to genuine leadership, which may include but should not be limited to: policy formulation, public facing, strategic planning, coalition building, and financial modeling. According to groundbreaking research documented in the previously cited Kick Some Glass, a team from the Center for Creative Leadership noted that providing employees with “challenging assignments” is critical to their development, across genders and cultures. Few things matter more to the development of a would-be CEO than the chance to “practice leadership” in real world situations. As not-for-profits struggle to get beyond the crisis, they would do well to provide the women on their teams with opportunities to do what they do best and not merely to operationalize the plans of their male supervisors.
Finally, and perhaps most difficult of all, it is time to teach men to incorporate many of the critically important attributes of effective leadership that give women an advantage when leading in crisis. In addition to the skillsets mentioned previously – empathy, humility, and the ability to earn and engender trust – these must also include emotional intelligence, relational skills, the ability to lead through inspiration, and a commitment to collaborative leadership. Far from an attempt to exacerbate the gender gap, I believe that the closer we come in the nonprofit world to what the preeminent gender researcher, Alice Eagly calls “androgynous leadership” (“Gender and Work: Challenging Conventional Wisdom,” Harvard Business School), the greater our chances of thriving beyond the current uncertainties, and the better the opportunities will be for women at the executive level of our organizations. As Eagly and her co-author, Linda Carli, note in their important book Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders (Harvard Business Review Press, 2007):
Successful leaders often have an androgynous balance of traits that includes gregariousness, positive initiative and assertion, social skills, intelligence, conscientiousness, integrity, trustworthiness, and the ability to persuade, inspire and motivate others … Effective leadership surely is not enhanced only by feminine qualities or only by masculine qualities. In fact, people who have extremely masculine or extremely feminine personalities are likely to be at a disadvantage for leadership in most contemporary settings.”
Providing executive training for leaders that includes, among other things, a focus on the skills previously enumerated, will materially enhance the ability to lead effectively both in the midst of and in the aftermath of a crisis. Particularly in the not-for-profit world, these characteristics are invaluable assets for anyone aspiring to great leadership, crisis or no crisis.
With deference to, and respect for the spate of articles reminding us that our work will never be the same after Coronavirus, I would like to suggest that unless we change how we think about leading, the virus may truly wreak irreversible havoc on the world of nonprofit organizations (and I would argue, for-profit ones as well). At the end of the previously cited article from Forbes on the women heading the countries faring best during the pandemic,the author, Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, notes that, “… too many political organizations and companies are still working to get women to behave more like men if they want to lead or succeed. Yet these national leaders are case study sightings of the … leadership traits men may want to learn from women.”
This is not an either-or situation. If the pandemic is teaching us anything it is that there is no singular definition of leadership for women or for men. We in the not-for-profit arena must seek to maximize the best of what Eagly and Carli call “agentic” and “communal” leadership traits. In her article, “Making Leadership Work More Effectively for Women,” Kent State University Research Professor, Janice Yoder, concurs:
At the one extreme, we picture leaders as powerful men barking orders and staking their effectiveness on their ability to get the job done. At the other pole, we can envision leaders who work to nurture their followers and who define their effectiveness in terms of strong bonds among group members … as well as task performance. In practice most leadership exists along a continuum defined by these two extremes, and where this point on the continuum falls is dictated largely by context: the type of task, the composition of the group, the organization’s goals and values, and so on.
A similar conclusion was reached in 2012 by European researchers whose brilliantly titled article “Are (male) leaders ‘feminine’ enough?” notes that “individuals who go beyond gender stereotypes and identify with both instrumental [male] and expressive [female] traits are potentially the most effective leaders.”
The research into crisis leadership leaves little doubt that the attributes adjudged most effective – compassion, humility, collaboration, trust – are those that are most often associated with women leaders. But to suggest that they are only available to women is to suggest that because male leaders are frequently thought of as confident, strategic and decisive, women are somehow incapable of incorporating those traits into their own leadership. Such thinking, often referred to as “the fallacy of the false alternative” has no place in our field.
The COVID crisis raises existential questions for the nonprofit world. Among the most significant of all, “What kind of leaders do we want for our organizations going forward?” As we contemplate the next steps for our sector and our communities, there is much to be learned from the women who lead, and the traits often associated with their leadership, in times of crisis and beyond. I offer these three recommendations then, not as a comprehensive list or as a naïve game plan for addressing decades-old problems. Rather, by taking these first three concrete and measurable steps, I am hopeful that we can begin to operationalize the latest set of findings on gender and leadership in order to make a material difference in this rapidly changing and uncertain world.
Dr. Hal M. Lewis is the current Chancellor and former President and CEO of Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership. He is the Principal Consultant for Leadership For Impact LLC, an executive coaching and organizational consulting firm, specializing in the nonprofit sector. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.