How Women Leaders Excel in a Crisis

Some of the key leadership behaviors more frequently practiced by women are the same skills critical to navigating through crisis, according to researchers at McKinsey & Company and Rutgers University. That includes the ability to present an inspiring vision for the future and create clear expectations and optimism around its implementation, as well as a greater tendency to demonstrate empathy, transparency and nurturance.
 
WOMEN RISE TO THE CHALLENGE
For years, McKinsey & Company and others have researched and documented a “performance effect” that demonstrates a correlation between a company’s strong performance and the proportion of women serving in senior leadership. More gender-diverse organizations enjoy greater bottom line success. It turns out that what is true during business-as-usual is especially true during times of crisis.
 
After conducting a survey of 800 global business leaders on the heels of the 2008 financial crisis, McKinsey reported their findings in Women leaders, a competitive edge in and after crisis. They said, “Our new report also confirms that certain leadership behaviors more frequently adopted by women are critical to navigate through the crisis safely and to perform well in the post-crisis world.”
 
Anyone feeling in crisis lately?
 
How women lead
McKinsey’s prior research had already established that women leaders used five of nine behaviors they’ve identified that positively affect corporate performance more often than their male counterparts. Two of those skillsets were also ranked by survey respondents as most important to helping an organization emerge successfully from crisis. They are the ability to guide others and inspire action, and the ability to define a clear vision and unite people in achieving it.
 
Women also tend to practice the effective leadership behaviors of participative decision making, empathy and setting clear expectations and rewards more often than their male peers.
 
“One of the biggest things that any leader needs to do right now is be transparent and be empathetic to their team members, because anxiety and uncertainty are heightened during a time of crisis,” said Lisa Kaplowitz, Director of the Center for Women in Business at Rutgers University, in a recent interview in Return on Information, New Jersey. “The more you can alleviate those concerns, the more you’re going to be able to then get people to perform.”
 
Her Rutgers colleague, gender studies researcher and Associate Professor, Kristina Durante, concurred. She points to what she calls evolutionary differences that have enabled women to develop stronger cooperative skills, higher levels of nurturance and the ability to foster trust among others.
 
According to McKinsey, “The ability to present an inspiring vision of the future and create optimism around its implementation is the most important behavior type to navigate through crisis.”
 
How she does it
A recent Harvard Business Review article suggested embracing gender differences in leadership based on large studies that show behaviors most often used by women are simply more effective. The same sentiments are echoed in a Forbes article that highlights the standout success in addressing the pandemic among several countries headed by women. Make sure these leadership behaviors are well represented in your repertoire.  
 
Empathize rather than command. Forbes compared the heartfelt outreach of the Prime Ministers of Norway and Denmark that helped alleviate citizens’ fears around COVID-19 to those of some male leaders who have sometimes focused blaming and stoking fears. The writer points to these national women leaders as case studies of leadership traits others may want to emulate, including empathy and personal communication.
 
Work to elevate others. We understand today that people are not cogs inserted to perform a specific task, and that meaningful works leads to higher engagement, stronger performance and organization commitment. When you see colleagues and direct reports as multifaceted people with high-value skills, you help to unlock their potential and enable them to expand their contribution.
 
Tell the truth, especially when it’s hard. A global pandemic is by its very nature unpredictable and evolving. But even in less dire circumstances, people want to know what they are up against. When you share information candidly, employees learn to trust and engage rather than shut down. Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, told her fellow citizens right from the start of the pandemic, “It’s serious. Take it seriously.” And then she followed her own advice and launched comprehensive programs to address the threat and people followed her example.
 
Good leadership is multifaceted 
There is no such thing as a female-only or male-only leadership style. Every leader has personal strengths and weaknesses. But research consistently shows that women leaders are more likely to practice some of the behaviors that are especially well-suited to handling a crisis.
 
The ability to establish a clear and inspiring vision, serve as an effective role model, develop others and get everyone on the same page are behaviors at which women tend to excel and that we need from all leaders now more than ever.
 
 
Some of the key leadership behaviors more frequently practiced by women are the same skills critical to navigating through crisis, according to researchers at McKinsey & Company and Rutgers University. That includes the ability to present an inspiring vision for the future and create clear expectations and optimism around its implementation, as well as a greater tendency to demonstrate empathy, transparency and nurturance.
 
 
WOMEN RISE TO THE CHALLENGE
For years, McKinsey & Company and others have researched and documented a “performance effect” that demonstrates a correlation between a company’s strong performance and the proportion of women serving in senior leadership. More gender-diverse organizations enjoy greater bottom line success. It turns out that what is true during business-as-usual is especially true during times of crisis.
 
After conducting a survey of 800 global business leaders on the heels of the 2008 financial crisis, McKinsey reported their findings in Women leaders, a competitive edge in and after crisis. They said, “Our new report also confirms that certain leadership behaviors more frequently adopted by women are critical to navigate through the crisis safely and to perform well in the post-crisis world.”
 
Anyone feeling in crisis lately?
 
How women lead
McKinsey’s prior research had already established that women leaders used five of nine behaviors they’ve identified that positively affect corporate performance more often than their male counterparts. Two of those skillsets were also ranked by survey respondents as most important to helping an organization emerge successfully from crisis. They are the ability to guide others and inspire action, and the ability to define a clear vision and unite people in achieving it.
 
Women also tend to practice the effective leadership behaviors of participative decision making, empathy and setting clear expectations and rewards more often than their male peers.
 
“One of the biggest things that any leader needs to do right now is be transparent and be empathetic to their team members, because anxiety and uncertainty are heightened during a time of crisis,” said Lisa Kaplowitz, Director of the Center for Women in Business at Rutgers University, in a recent interview in Return on Information, New Jersey. “The more you can alleviate those concerns, the more you’re going to be able to then get people to perform.”
 
Her Rutgers colleague, gender studies researcher and Associate Professor, Kristina Durante, concurred. She points to what she calls evolutionary differences that have enabled women to develop stronger cooperative skills, higher levels of nurturance and the ability to foster trust among others.
 
According to McKinsey, “The ability to present an inspiring vision of the future and create optimism around its implementation is the most important behavior type to navigate through crisis.”
 
How she does it
A recent Harvard Business Review article suggested embracing gender differences in leadership based on large studies that show behaviors most often used by women are simply more effective. The same sentiments are echoed in a Forbes article that highlights the standout success in addressing the pandemic among several countries headed by women. Make sure these leadership behaviors are well represented in your repertoire.  
 
Empathize rather than command. Forbes compared the heartfelt outreach of the Prime Ministers of Norway and Denmark that helped alleviate citizens’ fears around COVID-19 to those of some male leaders who have sometimes focused blaming and stoking fears. The writer points to these national women leaders as case studies of leadership traits others may want to emulate, including empathy and personal communication.
 
Work to elevate others. We understand today that people are not cogs inserted to perform a specific task, and that meaningful works leads to higher engagement, stronger performance and organization commitment. When you see colleagues and direct reports as multifaceted people with high-value skills, you help to unlock their potential and enable them to expand their contribution.
 
Tell the truth, especially when it’s hard. A global pandemic is by its very nature unpredictable and evolving. But even in less dire circumstances, people want to know what they are up against. When you share information candidly, employees learn to trust and engage rather than shut down. Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, told her fellow citizens right from the start of the pandemic, “It’s serious. Take it seriously.” And then she followed her own advice and launched comprehensive programs to address the threat and people followed her example.
 
Good leadership is multifaceted 
There is no such thing as a female-only or male-only leadership style. Every leader has personal strengths and weaknesses. But research consistently shows that women leaders are more likely to practice some of the behaviors that are especially well-suited to handling a crisis.
 
The ability to establish a clear and inspiring vision, serve as an effective role model, develop others and get everyone on the same page are behaviors at which women tend to excel and that we need from all leaders now more than ever.

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