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How Women Leaders Have Transformed Management

“Emergent” leadership—inclusive, collaborative, and based on performance instead of formal titles—aligns with the skills that female executives bring to the C-suite.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

In a recent New York Times column, “How to Get a Job at Google,” Thomas Friedman interviews Laszlo Bock, the company’s senior vice president for people operations (which seems to be Google-speak for talent management). Bock notes that because constant innovation is increasingly a group endeavor, people who succeed in the company “tend to be those with a lot of soft skills: leadership, humility, collaboration, adaptability, and loving to learn and re-learn.”

Bock ranks leadership as particularly important, but is careful to specify “emergent” rather than “traditional” leadership. “Traditional leadership is, were you president of the chess club? Were you vice president of sales? How quickly did you get there?” Regarding those attributes, he has a quick response: “We don’t care.” What Google does care about is whether someone is willing to step up and take ownership of an issue––and then step back when someone else has a better idea or the skills to take it further. In a collaborative culture, being willing to relinquish power is essential.

The emergent leadership Bock is talking about seems to be both non-positional (based on personal qualities rather than one’s title or formal power) and nonhierarchical (when people are comfortable acting from the center of a collaborative web). This model has, of course, been developing for some time—and I believe this shift has occurred at least partly because women have become profoundly interwoven into the fabric of most organizations and have increasingly assumed positions of authority and influence. Given that March 8 is International Women’s Day, organized by the United Nations to celebrate women’s achievements, particularly in the workforce, this topic deserves a closer look. 

I know I’m making a big generalization when I say that women leaders tend to be more inclusive, and notable exceptions prove the rule. (The former Ex-CEO of Campbell’s Soup, Douglas Conant, was famous for his inclusivity, while Carly Fiorina at HP played by traditional rules with a vengeance.) But I’m comfortable making this assertion because I’ve had a front-row seat to the evolving role of women leaders over the past 25 years.

In 1990, I published The Female Advantage: Women’s Ways of Leadership, the first book to look at what women might have to contribute as leaders rather than how they needed to change and adapt. Based on diary studies of outstanding women leaders, who were sparse on the ground in those days, I benchmarked what I found against The Nature of Managerial Work, Henry Mintzberg’s classic study of the diaries of leaders who just happened to all be men.

The women I studied operated in an almost astonishingly nonhierarchical way when compared to Mintzberg’s execs. They showed little interest in perks and titles, often preferring modest offices in the dead center of an organization and criticizing the “Versailles to the pig style” range of workspaces common in most organizations. They tended to lead from the center rather than the top, drawing people in around them and creating tendrils of connection throughout the organization, rather than putting up barriers that hierarchies reinforce. They had a bias for direct communication and preferred receiving information from those directly concerned, rather than conveyed up a chain of command. They sought to make collaboration and teamwork cascade through their organizations, rather than pitting people against one another and letting them duke it out.

This might sound like good leadership in 2014, but in 1990, having soft skills and an inclusive approach was generally seen as weakness.  It was an era when go-it-alone tough guys were lionized as leaders. Fortune magazine even ran an annual cover story on “America’s Toughest Bosses” with a clear message: These guys might be nasty, but they got the job done. It was the time of “Chainsaw” Al Dunlop and American Airlines CEO Robert Crandell, known for the unremitting hostility he stirred in the ranks. Anyone who wants to relieve the period can take a wallow in Testosterone Inc.: Tales of CEOs Gone Wild, Chris Byron’s accounting of top dogs relishing the perks.

In 1990, having soft skills and an inclusive approach was generally
seen as weakness.

As the recent film, The Wolf of Wall Street, demonstrates, these guys are still around. The difference is that, today, nobody is writing about them as exemplary leaders. How we understand leadership has evolved—the concept has become less about showing you’re in charge and more about orchestrating others and bringing out the best gifts everyone has to offer. This shift has coincided precisely with the growing influence of women in organizations.

The evolution is of course also the result of a transformation in the architecture of the technologies we use at work, which have become progressively more web-like and non-hierarchical. And it’s the result, as Laszlo Bock notes, of an economy that is driven by technological change and increasingly views innovation as the prime determinant of organizational success.

All of these shifts have occurred together and reinforced one another. But it’s interesting to speculate whether the success of what was once considered a primarily female leadership style could have become “emergent” if women had not had the synchronous good fortune to flood the workforce just as these other factors evolved to support them. And women have certainly played a critical role in laying bare the weaknesses of what Bock calls “traditional leadership”—a model that few of us will miss.

Sally Helgesen

Sally Helgesen is the author of seven books on leadership, most recently How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back from Your Next Raise, Promotion, or Job, coauthored with Marshall Goldsmith. She delivers workshops and keynote addresses around the world and has been a contributor to s+b since 2005. 

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