What can male leaders learn from successful women?

In our November leadership blog “Where are the women?”, we highlighted some of the typically male traits which, when leveraged alongside women’s key strengths, provide all the benefits of diversity and a path forward for women towards more balanced leadership representation. For December, we have looked to reverse this focus, addressing some of the key (traditionally) female qualities men should be well aware of as they look to hone an effective leadership style.

With thanks to Ravid Barzilay, VP Global Tax at Teva Pharmaceutical Industries for sharing his thoughts on the topic.

What makes a good leader?

Through much of history, being male was a prerequisite, to the extent that we’ve come to assume leaders must have traditional masculine qualities: incisiveness, independence, forcefulness.

We think of military commanders, taking on adversaries and developing cunning strategies. Are these really the qualities that shape a good leader? What do male leaders gain from embracing the traditionally feminine attributes of empathy, selflessness, humility and caring?

Why some men leapfrog their way to the top

We’ve all known organisations where male leaders were, frankly, overpromoted and on an ego trip. Some men just seem to bash their way to the top through overconfidence, bravado and determination, without necessarily developing the competence that would enable them to do a good job of heading up a team.

Science suggests, through the “The Gender Similarities Hypothesis” that males and females are similar on most, but not all, psychological variables, but where men take a very masculine approach to leadership, this does not always deliver results. Women who do hold positions of leadership often show more effective leadership behaviours that help drive success.

These behaviours are by no means limited to women, it’s just that men have not been encouraged to display them because our society has bought into the idea that leadership is about displaying perceived ‘masculine’ qualities like strength and vigour more than ‘feminine’ qualities such as empathy and humility.

With a little reflection, men can learn much when it comes to how female leaders achieve results – especially when they do so through a more considered approach than the traditional “take-no-prisoners” style to management. What are some of the key traits men can learn from female leaders?

Know when your contribution will be valuable

Habits like speaking over people, taking credit for the achievements of others, or being self-promoting often prevent the best ideas from emerging and the real talent from being recognised. If a discussion is not all about you, sometimes it’s better to listen than to jump in.

Understand your weaknesses as well as your strengths

Overconfidence is sometimes rewarded in the workplace, but taking a slightly slower, humbler path can result in wisdom that stands the test of time. Instead of skating over your weaker areas and hoping nobody notices, you can recognise them, work on them, and recruit colleagues to help make up for your shortcomings. Exposing yourself to a little criticism could make you a stronger leader in the long run.

Value other people’s talents

Don’t just think about your own career path; think about the achievements of your team and your organisation. Focusing on your own trajectory might involve elbowing others out of the way to win yourself that promotion, flashy office or senior title, but building something meaningful and innovative with a team of others can be much more rewarding and enriching. You will also build relationships that stand the test of time.

Use more carrot, less stick

There’s probably room for both incentives and pressure in any management style, but women leaders tend to favour the carrot: inspiring and transforming a team by aligning them with the business purpose. Male leadership styles focus more on the stick – targets, productivity and performance indicators.

Empathy is more powerful than issuing orders

It’s not weak to care about others, but caring qualities have traditionally been associated with women, and not always in a good way. However, as technology takes over more and more areas of working life, human emotion is still the arena where leaders really can make a difference. Building emotional connections with your team can spur them on to develop and grow much more than a cold, distant leader.

Consider other people’s perspectives

The male, pale and stale perspective is so pervasive that it’s easy to forget other perspectives exist. Women often experience the corporate world differently to men, bringing a fresh perspective and an appetite for diversity. Be humble and listen to what others have to say in order to get a more rounded view.

Watch out for defensive feelings

If it makes you feel a bit nettled to think about women taking stronger leadership roles, it’s worth considering why. Maybe you disagree that women have faced any disadvantages, or that women might tend towards a different leadership style. Maybe the idea that men might be promoted faster and further than is always merited might make you feel defensive. It shouldn’t: if you are confident in your abilities and take the time to develop a leadership style you are proud of, possibly including some traditionally ‘feminine’ approaches, you can be sure you deserve to be where you are.

How will your leadership style develop in future? Never stop learning, questioning and looking for fresh ideas – if you stand still, you fall behind.

“Every leader’s ambition should be to have a professional, engaged and motivated team that can do great things. Achieving “gender equality and inclusion” is a major part of this ambition, knowing that diverse teams stimulate innovation and improved business performance. Treating everyone the same is not always enough, leaders must develop a deep understanding and an awareness to progress on this topic.  Unfortunately, we still witness that men are dominant in leadership positions with gender pay gaps across many organizations worldwide. We as leaders have the responsibility to address this and to make the environments we operate in more inclusive. 

We can achieve this by raising awareness of the topic, discovering our own biases and encouraging others to do the same. Learning from one another, embracing and developing new traits that have perhaps previously been “alien” to us is key to ensuring we as individuals develop, which in turn will help to foster inclusive, high performing, diverse teams”.

Ravid Barzilay, VP Global Tax at Teva Pharmaceutical Industries



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