Leadership: male or female?

Sometimes I happen to think of extraordinary women leaders who are very special for their humanity and inner strength. I think of women who, despite enormous efforts, have left a mark on humanity, supported by self-confidence, deep-seated motivation and determination which have almost never abandoned them, even in difficult times. I think of women like Rita Levi Montalcino, Michelle Bachelet, Ertharin Cousin, Janet Yellen, Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Malala Yousafzai and many others. These are women who differ in style, personality and personal history, but who are equal in their extraordinary ability to shed a light in the dark.

When we think of female leadership, it is tempting to bring up the many difficulties that women face in their professional career, from the remuneration gap and disparity existing with their male counterparts, to the social and emotional pressure and harassment they have to cope with and fight against. These are social issues that we must embrace and that definitely require constant and assiduous work of political persuasion and social commitment.

It is also tempting to compare the qualities and social dynamics which distinguish a male leader from a female leader. In business, for example, it is common to think of male leaders as rational and not emotional, directive and not flexible. Those who extol the presence of women as leaders emphasize their ability to be there with their head and their heart, to be multi-tasking without being too aggressive, to be directive without excluding others’ contributions. These people argue that these qualities are innate because of women’s intrinsic maternal role. Yet, how often do we come across women leaders who reproduce the worst aspects of male leaders or act with inconsistencies that stem from difficulties in dealing with gender issues?

Given that a good leader should contemplate active listening, assertiveness, communication skills, empathy, ability to delegate, involve and be flexible, I strongly believe that a key to true and constructive leadership comes from a point of inner balance and harmony that leads the leader to make peace with their own humanity.

It is precisely with the definition make peace with their own humanity that I advocate a change that is urgently needed. I refer to the need to have leaders who express their leadership from a position of personal congruency and inner balance. For we need leaders who have solved their emotional difficulties and are able to freely appreciate and respect their uniqueness made of values and qualities that are specific to each person and that can not be confused or diluted by conventional or stereotypical behaviour. I strongly believe that the act of making peace with ones’ own humanity is highly revolutionary because not only does it challenge a model which is aimed at mere production and human alienation, but it also re-introduces the humanistic element that has been lost in recent decades and which is often lacking in many business and productive contexts.*

Women leaders are increasingly appreciated in the economic and business world because of their ability to develop strategies that not only encompass competitive attitudes but they also include solidarity and flexibility. Hence, it is essential that female leadership stems from a position of inner harmony and congruency which has made peace with the personal difficulties coming from gender, family and relational issues. For, it is indisputable that there will always be men and women interlocutors and that female leadership will always be tested, provoked, questioned and, at times, even undermined. It is, therefore, important that women leaders have the courage to stop and listen to themselves, to look within and around themselves, so that they do not lose their inner balance and are able to realise what price they have to pay or are paying if they continue in a particular direction.

To conclude, the ingredients for good leadership are not based on leadership books and manuals but are ingrained in the skills that allow a leader to stop, evaluate and discern with the strength of their body, feelings and mind-intellect, which goals, attitudes and challenges can be deviant and move them away from that revolutionary point of strength, which is their inner balance that enables them to make peace with their own humanity.

* It is interesting to note that some economists foresee for the future new business models that are based on values including trust and empathy (Rifkin, 2010, The empathic civilization, Penguin.)

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