What women want – The future of leadership

A few years ago, I reflected on an article in the February 2004 fast Company magazine about why women have not rushed into the top bosses positions. In the last few years, that reflection has not changed. Women still have a lot of work to do to influence the culture of the world of work. But it is work they are keen to do, and increasingly will be doing, as this decade unfolds.

In the Fast Company article, Linda Tischerler investigated the reasons behind the dearth of women CEO’s in the corporate jungle. The predominant reason she suggested is that it is because women, many of whom work every bit as hard as their male counterparts, fail to compete as hard as most men for those top positions where the air is thin and the expectations all consuming. Any hope of achieving balance between life and work is simply not going to happen when working at such altitude. And that maintains Tischerler, is a problem for most women who simply are not willing to surrender heart and soul to the company and compete under such draconian rules.

But the irony is that never before has the workplace environment been so conducive, so in need, of what woman have to offer such leadership roles and responsibilities.

Contrary to Tischerler’s gloomy prediction that there may never be women in the corner office, we in TomorrowToday.biz believe that with the emergence of the Connection economy, fuelled as it is by three major convergent forces that drive change, viz. technology, institutions and values, women in the corner office is not only inevitable, but welcome.


Creditability for such a claim lies in understanding something of leadership throughout the broad sweep of the economic epochs that have delivered us to this juncture in history. A context for understanding the direction of the change drivers and what they will deliver is important if we are to motivate the argument for women in the corner office, beyond that is the tired and worn arguments of gender equality and woman liberation motivations, however valid they may be.

Beginning with the Hunter-Gatherer epoch, the overriding need within this era was ‘daily survival’. In this context, competitive advantage went to those individuals or clans displaying the greater hunger and focus for providing the basic necessities. In this environment leadership would have defaulted to the physically strong, the hunters, in other words, the men. And so male leadership is on the scoreboard!

Technologies drive changes in society and societal changes, drive history. With the advent of the wheel, paper and writing, coupled with the ability of man to harness the power of animals to do the work, the Agrarian epoch began. In this economic era land ownership dominated. Competitive advantage would have been secured by those with the greater passion and pride for their land ownership and how well that resource was maintained and utilized. Again, women for the most part were excluded from owning land and thereby shut-out of the leadership stakes. While Egypt emerged as the first major economy of the Agrarian era, history does reveal women occupying powerful and influential positions across a variety of cultures during this period. There were at least five woman monarchs who occupied the Egyptian throne, including Cleopatra VII. Then there was Hatchepsut and Elizabeth I, both of whom at times dressed as men (and in Hatchepsut’s case even resorting to wearing a false beard) in order to depict the ‘maleness’ of their leadership. And whilst women in the corner office today may not resort to wearing beards, I wonder to what extend they feel the need to compromise themselves in exercising their leadership?

So, round two draws to an end and women are yet to bother the scorers. Males lead and males set the rules.

The Agrarian era gave way to the Industrial Age as technologies (steam engine and the printing press) yet again drove massive changes in society. These mid-Eighteenth centaury changes that were rooted in England, would forever change the nature of work, the lingering shadows of which stretch to this very day. As large scale urbanisation took place and factories emerged, a pattern was set in place that was to shape how we understood work, organised labour, and built institutions. The economy was based on efficiencies and those who were able to entrench related business basics were the ones who gained a competitive advantage. The auto industry led the way with their innovative assembly line production, a methodology quickly mimicked by several other industries. In this economic environment, leadership was centred on positional authority, experience, and followed a ‘command and control’ style. The distinction between those who owned the factories (those with title) and those who worked in the factories was sharp and gave rise to the familiar ‘white collar, blue collar’ dichotomy. Against this backdrop the environmental constraints on leadership once again meant that women were firmly excluded, a situation exacerbated by the societal expectations women encountered. (As portrayed in the recent Julia Roberts film Mona Lisa Smile)

The 1950′s mark the beginnings of the Information Era, sparked as it was by the early stirrings of the computer. In an economic era where data-crunching and cash-flow dominated, having the necessary computing power and infrastructure equated to securing a competitive advantage. Driven by the decentralisation of information and control, organisations began to flatten and even fragment, and leadership went to those clever enough to understanding the opportunities and challenges being presented in a rapidly changing landscape. With education becoming increasing accessible and traditional societal expectations relating to gender roles being eroded, women now found themselves in a position to enter and compete for the corner office. Many would argue that women still had to work harder than their male counterparts for due recognition and reward, but the seemingly impregnable grip on leadership that males had been used to exercising had been broken. Business journals and magazines testify to the increasing rise of women into positions of corporate power and influence, and yet there remains a ‘but’ in all of this.

Although the mould has been broken, and a mass of women graduate from the rash of business schools and executive grooming parlours, proportionally few women are to be found at the top of the pile. Why is this so? According to Tischler, it is because the nature of the beast, the organisation, remains unaltered. It is an all consuming, all demanding animal that demands heart and soul, a price that women who get close enough to see this for themselves, simply aren’t prepared to pay the price.

Fair enough, but what if the nature of the beast is about to change? What are the technological forces that will inevitably change this economic epoch, as we have seen them consistently do throughout history?

It is the internet. The internet, more so than any other technology, is driving us from the Information era into what we in TomorrowToday.biz call the Connection economy. Information systems are necessary but no longer sufficient to create a competitive advantage. Something more is required. After all, whether you are in service or manufacturing industries, why should people buy from you? You offer the same service / product, at much the same price, through the same channels and advertised through the same media? ‘In light of the growing realisation that the human quota in any business is the most important asset, perhaps an even more important question than ‘why should people buy from you?’ is, ‘why should people work for you?’

Both these questions cryptically point to an economy where competitive advantage is secured through the creation of authentic relationships both inside of and outside the business. Who you are matters most. Science too is playing an influential role. Quantum physics is replacing the Newtonian physics that have previously shaped our worldview and influenced the nature and structure that have dominated the corporate landscape. Understanding the world as a machine and the need to organise ourselves in hierarchies are giving way to an understanding of the world as a connection of dynamic relationships where networks dominate. This fundamental shift, given added impetuous by a generation (Generation X) who see things differently and operate from a different value base to that of preceding generations, mean that we are once again in a transition period. The outcome of the current transition will be to emerge in an economy conducive to female leadership.

The leadership demands in a connection economy will place the emphasis on characteristics and skills such as intuition, empathy, the ability to work with paradox and uncertainty. It will be a place where asking the relevant questions will be more important that having the answers, where leaders will need to be learners, listeners, adapters, storytellers, nurturers and synthesisers. Relationships will lead when it comes to attracting, retaining and rewarding the ‘Bright Young Things’ so necessary for every business, and relationships will outweigh transactions. New measuring tools will have to be fashioned as new elements, beyond the profit and loss statement will require measurement. All the evidence points to women, rather than men, being better equiped to lead in such an environment. Connection, not competition will be the benchmark and the Alpha-male, so long conditioned to a ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality will, with few exceptions, find it too difficult to adapt. The inability to unlearn entrenched habits buoyed by past success which provides the justification for not changing (you don’t change a winning team / why fix it if it isn’t broken?), will prove to be the nemesis for many current (male) leaders. It will be a bridge to far for leaders used to simply embracing the latest management fad, instituting superficial changes and uttering all the right things but changing none of the harmful habits and policies.

So in this emerging Connection economy it is the women who have the inside lane when it comes to the corner office. And once there, best be prepared for some sweeping changes as they, shed of the need to ‘dress-up as men’, lead in way that will make sense of the changes taking place. As the corporate towers give way to the market square environment in which we live and do business, it will be women who will thrive and restore some of the much needed balance that has been missing in the intersection of where life and work collide.

Time of course will tell, but in the meantime, keep an eye on that corner office.

0 thoughts on “What women want – The future of leadership”

  1. This issue of gender and leadership and how it is reflected through the number of women in senior managerial roles is such a hot topic at the moment. One aspect we find that is overlooked is the degree to which men and women differ at the level of personality traits. Prompted by two very senior leaders in the UK, one a woman, one a man, who asked us contemporaneously but independently whether our database evidenced any psychological differences we produced a research report into the subject, which can be downloaded from http://www.glowinkowski.com/img/Approach-and-Toolkit/GPI/Impact-of-Gender.pdf. If you choose to do so, please feel free to circulate and let us know what you think. There are so many traits that women possess that if reflected in the way they behave would make them much better managers than men. They would create a less aggressive work culture, for instance. Where women behave out of character, i.e. try to be more male, we see the ‘queen bee’ phenomenon arise, which received wide publicity in the UK media this week. Irrespective of gender, we need leaders who will create an environment in their organisation in which their people know what they doing and why, are prepared to work hard and to challenge the status quo, to feel able to make decisions without the threat of a bad one resulting in a dawn firing squad, regard their place of work as a meritocracy (effort and results recognised and rewarded, malingering addressed quickly and firmly) and feel involved in setting their organisation’s future pathway. This demands leaders to behave in a certain way, which is influenced significantly by their underlying behavioural characteristics. If these are not understood and appreciated, then people simply cope and that is when delivered behaviours are less effective.

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