May 7, 2020

Female leaders are guiding countries and corporations in positive directions, but that shouldn’t surprise us

Werklund School prof on what it means to be a heart-led leader

Only two weeks after imposing a four-week lockdown in New Zealand, media were hailing Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern for her leadership, not only flattening the curve, but squashing it. 

But Ardern, who gained a global audience after attending a United Nations General Assembly meeting with her infant present, isn’t alone among female leaders being lauded for their clear, decisive actions during this global crisis. In Germany, Iceland and Finland, in Hong Kong and Taiwan, too, female leaders are drawing kudos for their better-than-average success in battling the virus, and the press are noticing.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand has attracted attention for her successful leadership in handling the COVID-19 crisis

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand has attracted attention for her successful leadership in handling the COVID-19 crisis.

Wikimedia Commons/Governor-General of New Zealand

Does it really make a difference, though, when women are in charge?

Not necessarily, says Dr. Amy Burns, MA’01, PhD’08, Werklund School of Education associate dean (main photo), who designed and teaches in a Werklund certificate program, Leading with Heart

Gender is far more complex that what these narrow definitions allow. In fact, Burns warns against statements that assume this binary fallacy between men and women. Stereotypes of female leaders often describe them as people-centred, more nurturing, caring and collaborative.

“This sounds positive,” says the professor, whose area of research is feminist leadership, policy and governance. “But the dark side of this characterization is that women are often seen as less decisive, that we can’t enforce standards of performance or productivity, all necessary in the successful outcome of any business or social enterprise.”

More problematic, she notes, is that when women exhibit characteristics associated with men, they are often quietly punished by both male and female colleagues. The same, however, can be said for men who appear more nurturing, she adds.

It is a dangerous dichotomy when we start making these comparisons. 

In a 2019 study by S&P Global, research showed female-led firms exhibited better stock price performance compared to the market average. Additionally, firms with female CEOs and CFOs demonstrated greater cultures of diversity and inclusion.  

Burns believes it’s in the public interest to ensure diversity among leadership because this will lead to more creativity and greater success. It is not only about gender equity but must be about all forms of diversity.

Rather than focus on gender stereotypes, she encourages her students to consider being ‘heart-led leaders.’  “This is someone who can balance the needs of people with the productivity needs of an organization,” she explains, “and does so in a way that invites meaningful and authentic collaboration.”   

Anyone can be a heart-led leader

Burns, who spent years developing Werklund’s certificate program for aspiring leaders and will be offering an open studies course on the topic this summer, recognizes the barriers women face in leadership advancement and career progression. Among them, the required leaves for maternity or family care, and the additional weight of carrying household responsibilities, unpaid labour, including meal preparation, care of children and family members. Men face different barriers, she adds, but these tend to deal more with institutional culture and fit. 

Still, she credits female leaders around the globe who have shown success in beating back the contagion, suggesting their experience in juggling multiple and competing priorities throughout life could be serving them well now. “Crisis situations often require not only quick and decisive behaviour but long periods of consultation. Female leaders, in their many roles, have been practising these skills, perhaps without even realizing it.”

Without dismissing the strong leadership women are showing, Burns says that men, too, can practise heart-led leadership. She often hears men in the Leading with Heart program say they want to do leadership differently. 

“They want to be the kind of leaders who see the people in their organization as well as the results,” she says, describing some motivations for taking the class. “They also often mention the desire to be better partners to their significant others, better fathers to their children and better members of their personal and professional groups.” 

By focusing on a vocabulary that is led by the heart, and not stereotypes, Burns says we can all benefit. “It prevents us from inadvertently playing into the dichotomies that plague us as a society, whereby women care about people and men care about results. The truth is, one is not possible without the other and it would be damaging to assume either is true.”