We live in a time when we are constantly grappling with crises big and small — within organizations where we work and at the national and global levels — making prepared leadership and skilled crisis management more important than ever before. As president of Simmons University, which offers Boston’s only undergraduate program solely for those who identify as women, I’ve spent a lot of time examining how men and women approach leadership and what we can learn from each.
As 2020 lurched to a close, the Harvard Business Review weighed in: Women prove to be more effective leaders than men in times of crisis. Researchers reached this conclusion after analyzing data and crisis management practices happening in real time: the COVID-19 pandemic. A UN Women working paper published in September 2021 explored the claim further and found that strong communication, strategic crisis management, collaborative decision-making, and the ability to implement inclusive policies were the qualities that made women such effective pandemic leaders.
For example, New Zealand’s prime minister required passengers arriving from China to be screened as early as January 2020 — well before many other countries were publicly talking about COVID. Decisions such as these are likely part of the reason why the number of COVID cases and deaths were generally lower in countries led by women and US states with women governors. At an organizational and business level, other studies have shown that women provided the type of trust-building leadership qualities that employees sought during the pandemic, such as the ability to express fear and vulnerability while also navigating chaos and showcasing hope.
As described in The Prepared Leader, a book I recently coauthored with Wharton School Dean Erika H. James, these approaches are in line with nine key skills that all effective leaders tend to showcase: the ability to heed warning signs, gather different perspectives, marshal influence, maintain flexibility, utilize creativity, communicate effectively, take appropriate risks, promote resilience, and learn critical lessons that can be applied in the future. These are skills we can all hone and sharpen in our careers and personal lives.
Effective leaders know that they can’t always go it alone. Nor can they be limited by their own preconceived notions. They must harness effective teams and build a culture of learning and trust. And they must be courageous enough to seek input and embrace ideas that are contradictory to their own, even as they build consensus around a solution. Researchers have noted that in times of crisis when failure is likely, women are appointed to leadership positions more often than men, in what is often called the glass cliff. This phenomenon also applies to men of color. One potential reason why is that organizations are willing to move away from traditional leadership ideals during crises in favor of qualities such as the ability to lead collaboratively while prioritizing listening and information gathering.
Questions about leadership differences between men and women are also important beyond immediate crises. Understanding the ways in which people lead exposes biases and preconceived notions — both about what makes an effective leader and about women leaders.
Many women will recognize familiar — and at times, stereotypical — critiques of their leadership styles, which can range from being too soft and too emotional, all the way to being too bossy or too harsh. Historically, effective leadership has been viewed in a top-down, patriarchal way. These deeply entrenched views also partially explain why the number of women CEOs continues to lag significantly behind men. Women made up just 5 percent of CEOs in the S&P Global Broad Market Index (which measures global equities markets) as of January 25, 2021. This lack of representation is also a challenge locally. In the field of higher education, for example, just 34 percent of sitting college presidents in Massachusetts are women, according to a July report issued by the Women’s Power Gap.
And it’s not just women CEOs who are affected. Various studies, like those from NPR and the Center for American Progress, have shown that women left the workforce at a rate four times faster than men during the pandemic. While the “she-cession” has been well covered, one of its lesser examined aspects is the impact on organizations. In an article published in March, the Harvard Business Review highlighted the many ways in which losses multiply when women leave the workforce, including the negative impact on businesses “since women leaders have more engaged teams, drive better job performance, and save their organization millions of dollars as a result.”
I grapple daily with critical issues such as these. Part of what attracted me to Simmons is its vital mission of preparing and elevating women to lead — professionally in their careers, civically in their communities, and in their personal lives. When the university was founded nearly 125 years ago, less than 20 percent of women in the United States earned a bachelor’s degree. The institution began with the idea that women, through education, could achieve greater financial security and independence. Using education to advance equity and leadership is the core of Simmons’s DNA today, as it is at other historically women’s institutions, which have proven to be some of the most effective places to cultivate women leaders and the specific skills that allow them to excel in their careers and make their organizations stronger.
Understanding the differences between how women and men lead — and how we can empower and support women leaders in their education and in the workplace — not only helps organizations become stronger and more resilient in times of crisis, but it also provides a deeper understanding of the multifaceted qualities inherent in effective leadership.
Lynn Perry Wooten is president of Simmons University and coauthor of The Prepared Leader. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.