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7 Traits of True Leaders

publication date: Jan 22, 2014
author/source: LEIGH BUCHANAN

Between Venus and Mars: 7 Traits of True Leaders  

Control is a mirage. The most effective leaders right now--men and women--are those who embrace traits once considered feminine: Empathy. Vulnerability. Humility. Inclusiveness. Generosity. Balance. Patience. 

What a perfect day to meet up with John Gerzema for a conversation about leadership styles. I have come to the Manhattan offices of Young & Rubicam to discuss Gerzema's new book, The Athena Doctrine, which argues that traits classically considered feminine are essential to effective leadership today.

By coincidence, the two weeks since I scheduled the appointment have kicked up a dust storm of news about female leaders behaving "like men" and male leaders behaving "like women." Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook exhorted women to power up the career ladder with the same obduracy as men. Marissa Mayer weighed empathy against a full parking lot at Yahoo and chose the latter. Andrew Mason reaped kudos for the candor, humility, and vulnerability expressed in his resignation letter from Groupon. He even made a joke about his weight.

You've seen the studies about companies with gender-diverse boards outperforming male bastions, and about women hedge-fund managers trouncing their male counterparts. In 2011, the leadership development firm Zenger Folkman surveyed more than 7,200 business people about leaders in their organizations. Women were rated as better overall leaders than their male counterparts. The more exalted the position, the wider the gap.

So, sure, more women leaders would be great. But this is not a story about women leaders. It's a story about good leaders. And our understanding of what good leaders do is being shaped by a number of new studies, the most intriguing of which comes from Gerzema, Young & Rubicam's chief insights officer and executive chairman of Y&R's BAV Consulting division.

A few years ago, Gerzema and his collaborator, Michael D'Antonio, wrote a book called Spend Shift, which described a postcrisis economy fueled by values rather than greed. As Gerzema made the public-speaking rounds, his audiences pointed out that the entrepreneurs, business leaders, and others profiled in the book evinced traits commonly considered feminine.

Gerzema manages the world's largest database of consumers, and so is uniquely positioned to kick theoretical tires. Intrigued by the observations about gender, he surveyed 64,000 people in 13 countries on how they felt about government, the economy, and the (mostly male) leaders pulling the levers. Substantial majorities waxed critical of institutions and pessimistic about their quality of life.

Two-thirds said the world would be a better place if men thought more like women. Gerzema also asked consumers to characterize 125 traits as male, female, or neutral and to indicate those most desirable in modern leaders. Topping the list of most desirable traitswere patience, expressiveness, intuition, flexibility, empathy, and many other traits identified by respondents as feminine.

The Holy Grail in business today is engagement: employees' energy, enthusiasm, and commitment to their companies. Engagement has a powerful effect not only on productivity but also on profitability and customer metrics, numerous studies show. But it's not something you can buy. The most recent Towers Watson Global Workforce Study identifies as key to engagement an employer who "promotes physical, emotional, and social well-being." At a time when CEOs are demanding more from diminished, anxious work forces, they must make employees feel part of something and demonstrate their personal concern and support.

"Whether you're talking about corporate America or Silicon Valley, it's still a man's world with masculine structures and women conforming to those ideals," says Gerzema. "Feminine traits and values are a new form of innovation. They are an untapped form of competitive advantage."

We have progressed from command-and-control (roughly through the 1980s) to empower-and-track (the 1990s to mid-2000s) to connect-and-nurture (today). Increasingly, the chief executive role is taking its place among the caring professions. It takes a tender person to lead a tough company.

Why we Need to Soften up

Let's be clear: No one wants to slip the Y-chromosome off leadership's genetic string. A University of Chicago study of CEOs in private-equity-funded companies found those who scored high on skills such as speed and persistence were more successful than those who scored high on team skills and were open to criticism. (The professor conducting that study labeled the two CEO types cheetahs and lambs.)

Gerzema's respondents ranked among the most desirable leadership traits decisiveness, resilience, and confidence, which they identified as masculine. And 81 percent said leaders require a combination of male and female traits.

The ideal leader, then, should be like the earth itself: positioned between Mars and Venus. But in an environment of uncertainty and shifting power structures, Venus is rising.

In the past 15 years or so, three factors have emerged to make a softer leadership style more attractive. Those factors are interdependence, cynicism, and the quest for sustainability.

We'll start with interdependence. Some business leaders see competition as a sprint and some as a marathon. But for virtually all, it has become a three-legged race that is impossible to win alone. Companies co-create with customers and vendors; they enlist their entire supply chains--sometimes even competitors--in risk management; they assume employees, consumers, and government agencies will call them out on their practices.

CEOs still bear ultimate responsibility for difficult decisions. But it's less lonely at the top with so many constituencies staking claims to be heard and respected. Under those circumstances, collaboration and flexibility are essential. And testosterone is not collaboration's friend. That was shown by a University College London study in which women given testosterone supplements were much more likely to behave egocentrically and insist on doing things their way during cooperative exercises.

Cynicism is the natural consequence of watching a long line of corporate dominoes topple over more than a decade as executives ignored risk to maximize profits. In their new book, Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman cite research showing not that women are risk averse but that they are better judges than men of their own abilities and less likely to play if they don't think they will win.

The exercise of caution is essential to earning trust--few of us are comfortable with our fate in the hands of someone who takes wild chances. So are openness (so people know what you are doing) and values (so they appreciate the reason you're doing it).

Finally, sustainability. At first, sustainability pertained exclusively to the preservation of natural resources and the environment. But the concept has expanded to include giving back to communities and supporting and developing employees--not just out of concern for their quality of life but also to improve performance.

Last October, the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, released a report showing that companies with more women on their boards perform better on environmental, social, and governance issues. Gerzema puts it neatly: "Men tend to be explorers, and women are allocators."

The effect on leadership of other trends is more ambiguous. Like everyone else, leaders interact with the world through technology, and in many ways technology encourages a classic male style. It strips emotion from communication, creates an impersonal global marketplace, and allows people to work in isolation. Yet technology also makes possible co-creation, collaboration, and the outpourings of compassion and offers of support that now follow catastrophe as a matter of course. As such, it both enables and amplifies the softer traits of leadership.

Then, of course, there are the new generational waves washing up on corporate shores: Millennials who expect to be mentored, respected, and charged with socially meaningful work-;all elements of the feminine style. But underemployment remains high among fresh graduates. Will young people still demand caring, inclusive leaders after a couple of years working the drive-through window? An authoritarian boss may seem a reasonable tradeoff for decent pay.

Farewell to Oz

It's not easy to twig off Brené Brown, a celebrated standard-bearer for compassion and empathy. But three years ago, I managed to do just that. So when I called her recently to talk about new approaches to leadership, she did not sound overjoyed to hear from me.

Brown is the author of the best-selling book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. In December 2010, she vaulted to fame with a TED talk, which at presstime had racked up nine million views. (By coincidence, Sheryl Sandberg's entreaty for women to aggressively pursue their careers was posted that same month. It had 2.4 million views.)

As a research professor at the University of Houston's Graduate College of Social Work, Brown interviewed more than 1,200 people on their experiences of shame, vulnerability, and "wholeheartedness," which she defines as "living and loving with their whole hearts, despite the risk and uncertainty." In her talk, Brown explained that people connect with others only when they themselves feel worthy of connection. Those who felt worthy, she said, displayed a particular kind of courage: to "let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were." Such people "fully embraced vulnerability," Brown told the TED audience. "They didn't talk about vulnerability being comfortable, nor did they really talk about it being excruciating. They just talked about it being necessary."

On the basis of that talk, I had asked Brown to write a column for Inc. about the implications of her research for leaders. This was during a period when Silicon Valley machismo was at a recent peak. The movie The Social Network had recently premiered, and Steve Jobs was being idolized for having changed the game--yet again--with the iPad. I had my own opinions on the subject, the result of a decade's worth of conversations with entrepreneurs, many of whom in their companies' early days had pretended their businesses were larger than they were or had capabilities they did not possess. I wanted Brown to acknowledge that company founders were a special case, for whom vulnerability wasn't always the best option.

Brown disagreed with my conclusions and did not write the column. And when we spoke in April, she reminded me that I had once "schooled" her about entrepreneurs.

She was gracious enough not to return the schooling now, but she had been right all along. We talked about the changing rhetoric around failure, which just a few years ago was not an option but today is considered a necessary catalyst for personal growth. Investors, Brown says, "are increasingly afraid of company founders who are not able to talk about where they have failed, how they have failed, and what they learned from it."

We are also less willing to believe that a single person holds the right answer to increasingly complex questions. "The Oz model of leadership--all knowing, all powerful--doesn't play anymore," says Brown. "If there were people who had all the answers, we wouldn't be in the trouble we are in today." In times of flux and peril, she says, we require leaders "who stand up and say, 'Hey, we are struggling in this area, and I don't have all the answers. And I need your help. And here's where I need ideas. And here's where I need to know what I'm doing well and what I need to do differently to support you.' " That kind of leader, says Brown, "is somebody people will follow into a burning building."

A related set of ideas about success comes from Adam Grant, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. Grant is the author of an excellent book about the power of generosity: Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success. He proved his own generosity by talking to me the morning after he appeared on the cover of The New York Times Magazine, when he was under siege by people asking him for favors.

Grant has assembled volumes of research in this area and conducted many studies himself, including one that found salespeople who feel strongly about benefiting others generated 50 percent more revenue than their less-caring counterparts. In another study, suggestions for improvement made by generous people were more enthusiastically accepted by colleagues than those coming from others.

Give and Take limns a taxonomy of generosity in which "givers" help others without expectation of return, "takers" exploit relationships for gain, and "matchers" pursue the quid pro quo. The most professionally successful are givers who also possess a strong sense of self-worth. These people--who are generous with their time, connections, and ideas--create rich networks wherein the norm is to add value to one another's lives and work. Consequently, ambitious givers embody connectedness, which is among the feminine leadership traits admired by Gerzema's respondents. Guy Kawasaki and Reid Hoffman are among the leaders cited by Grant who ask constantly what they can do for others. Hoffman, for example, tries to do at least one thing a day that is not for himself.

Generosity benefits leaders in several ways, Grant explains. They earn respect and prestige, which translate into loyalty from employees and trust from peers and business partners. They make better decisions because they naturally act in the best interest of others. They are able to step outside their own frames of reference to understand what their employees and customers truly want and need. And they are excellent developers of talent, because they focus not on existing stars but rather on employees who, with the right help, may grow to greatness.

The ripple effect of being a giver-leader can be powerful and salubrious. When leaders are generous with their time and support, that behavior will "cascade down levels and across regions of an organization," Grant says. "And the frequency and amount of helping and knowledge sharing among employees is a very important driver of lots of organizational performance metrics, from profitability and productivity to retention to customer satisfaction."

Generosity, in other words, is the ultimate silo destroyer. CEOs who model it inspire that most elusive of goals: a work force in which everyone develops everyone else.

Our Lincoln Moment

Although a general election took place in November, the U.S. President foremost in our hearts and minds of late has been dead for 148 years. Lincoln is a man for our times. And not just because he bears a striking resemblance to Daniel Day-Lewis.

Lincoln scholars have commented on the 16th President's merging of masculine traits (strength of purpose, tenacity) with feminine ones (empathy, openness, the willingness to nurture others). That combination "was central to his practice of great leadership," writes Frank J. Williams in the essay collection The Lincoln Forum: Rediscovering Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln's humility and inclusiveness made possible the "team of rivals" described by Doris Kearns Goodwin in the popular book of that title. Generous and empathic, he made time for people of all stations who approached him with their troubles.

Our romance with gut decision making, on the other hand--fanned by Jack Welch and Malcolm Gladwell, among others--feels less ardent today. The complexity that makes vulnerability so important has a similar effect on collaboration. Issues with multiple layers and stakeholders are tough (and dangerous) to just decide. No less a light than Nobelist Daniel Kahneman plumped for the more deliberative style in Thinking, Fast and Slow, a nice companion volume to Team of Rivals. Kahneman says decisions based on intuition tend to be tainted by overconfidence and ignore alternative interpretations of the situation at hand. Your gut, argues Kahneman, wants to keep things simple and work with the information it has, even if that information is incomplete or not particularly relevant.

Worldwide, people want feminine traits in their leaders

32,000 study subjects were asked to classify 125 traits as masculine, feminine, or neutral. Another 32,000 were asked to rate the importance of the traits to effective leadership. “Feminine” traits were more likely to be strongly linked to leadership.

Feminine thinking seems to make people happier 

A more thoughtful, inclusive form of decision making comes more naturally to women, who typically see things in less absolute terms than do men. In a University of Warwick study, both men and women were asked to state whether 50 objects fit partly, fully, or not at all into particular categories. The women were much more likely than the men to choose "partly." (So: Tomatoes are sort of a fruit but also, arguably, not.)Each country’s attitudes toward masculine and feminine traits in leaders were plotted against self-reported quality of life in those countries. Respondents from societies that value “feminine” traits in their leaders were more likely to be thriving.

In the new order of collaborative leadership and team-based everything, the bias is toward soliciting more, and more diverse, perspectives. Employees, needless to say, are down with that. My favorite of the many, many best-places-to-work lists isn't a best-places-to-work list at all. Rather it is WorldBlu's list of the "most democratic companies," which includes such cultural lodestars as Zappos, New Belgium Brewing, and Great Harvest Bread.

Traci Fenton, who founded WorldBlu to promote freedom, accountability, and transparency in the workplace, says democratic businesses tend to be more financially successful and have greater social impact than their bureaucratic counterparts. "People want to have their voices heard," says Fenton. "When you give them that and respect what they have to say, they are more engaged, and that makes them more productive."

A related development is a growing focus on listening, which in the pantheon of leadership skills is ascending to the same level as communication. Communication still rules. (Although Grant explains that "powerless communication," rife with "disclaimers, hedges, and hesitations," is often more persuasive than assertive talk. More grist for the gentle mill.) But business leaders and management experts increasingly tout the importance of learning to hear--really hear--what others say. Consider former IBM chief Sam Palmisano's observation, reported in the McKinsey Quarterly last year, that his time in Japan was crucial to his leadership development because it forced him to bear down on listening simply for the sake of comprehension.

I can imagine debates breaking out about the primacy of communication versus listening similar to those about the primacy of employees versus customers. No matter your opinion, listening happens first, says Bernard Ferrari, dean of the Carey Business School at Johns Hopkins University and author of the 2012 book Power Listening. "Remember the movie Patton, with George C. Scott standing on the stage with the flag behind him giving that great inspirational speech?" Ferrari asks. "People say, 'That's leadership!' And I say, 'No! No! No! What kind of listening did he have to do to inform that speech? Who did he talk to? What did he learn? What kinds of questions did he ask? That's leadership.' "

Patient Advocacy

The patron saint of female leadership principles may be Anita Roddick, the founder of the Body Shop, who died six years ago. Interviewed by Sally Helgesen for her 1995 book The Female Advantage: Women's Ways of Leadership, Roddick defined feminine principles as "caring…not getting hung up on hierarchy…having a sense of work as being part of your life, not separate from it; putting your labor where your love is; being responsible to the world in how you use your profits; recognizing the bottom line should stay at the bottom."

Implicit in Roddick's list is not only the question, How do we lead? but also, Why do we lead? Entrepreneurs and business leaders have been asking that question for at least a quarter-century. Putting aside the "to-make-pots-of-money" explanation (that may be why we start companies; it's not why we lead), one response might be "to get big fast, and in the process benefit as much as possible my employees, customers, investors, and the world." That is an excellent answer.

An alternative response is "to build patiently and thoughtfully a business with strong roots in the community at a scale that allows me to maintain personal relationships with and directly influence the lives of employees and customers." That, too, is an excellent answer.

Gerzema characterizes patience, long-term thinking, and community orientation as feminine. Ambitious growth correlates with masculine traits. Men, speculates Gerzema, are legacy oriented. Women want to nurture. But even CEOs with aggressive growth strategies can lead with feminine values. So long as founders are intent on building companies that endure, that always pay back to the people in and around them, the two approaches are equal.

"It's not about building bigger companies but about serving something bigger," says Gerzema. "There's so much cynicism that people are out for short-term gain. Leadership today is about taking people into a better future. That's a long trip."

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