The difference in leadership styles between our new president and the old one is breathtaking. By now, though, the change is so apparent that there really isn’t much to say about it.
Except maybe this: The new guy sure is appointing a lot of women. Janet Yellen at Treasury, Deb Haaland at Interior, Gina Raimondo at Commerce, Avril Haines as director of national intelligence.
Fewer than one-quarter of Donald Trump’s Cabinet-level appointees were women, and all 15 members of his final Cabinet were men. So far, about half of Joe Biden’s choices for top jobs are women — including, of course, his vice president.
That’s great for diversity, and it’s about time. But, I suspect something else is going on here. It’s becoming increasingly evident, in both politics and business, that women make better bosses than men, especially in times of crisis.
Some of the most admired political leaders in the world are women: Germany’s Angela Merkel, who has become the de facto head of Europe; Jacinda Ahern, whose decisive actions have made New Zealand a nearly COVID-free paradise. Both the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization are now headed by women: France’s Christine Lagarde and Nigeria’s newly appointed Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, respectively.
In the business world, several studies over the years have found that companies run by women, still a minority, perform better in the long run than those headed by men. A new survey in the Harvard Business Review shows that female executives are generally rated by their colleagues as more effective than male counterparts. In the study, based on evaluations of more than 60,000 executives, women scored especially high in handling the COVID-19 crisis.
It’s a wry joke among female executives that they make it to the top only after some man has run the company into a ditch. General Motors handed Mary Barra the keys in 2014, after a faulty ignition problem caused 3 million vehicle recalls. (Last month, she boldly announced that GM would make only electric cars by 2035.) Jane Fraser became chief executive of Citibank late last year, after it was fined $400 million for what regulators called “unsafe and unsound banking practices.”
These days, even well-run organizations are turning to women. The Boston Symphony Orchestra this week named Gail Samuel to be the first female chief executive in its 140-year history. The BSO prospered under the 23-year stewardship of her predecessor, Mark Volpe, but the pandemic has cut revenues and created uncertainty about when audiences will return.
What makes female leaders better? In the Harvard study, they scored higher than men on such traits as motivating, communicating and fostering teamwork. Those so-called “soft” qualities are often associated with women. But, female bosses in the survey also did better on “hard” skills, like decision-making and initiative-taking.
The reason, some experts say, is that men tend to view their careers “vertically,” as single-minded climbs up the ladder. Women, by contrast, take a broader, more “horizontal” approach — building relationships outside the office and taking career detours. In fact, those side trips are thought to make women more nimble and creative decision-makers.
I can confirm that finding. In my overlong career, I had a number of female bosses. They excelled in all major categories — soft and hard, vertical and horizontal — plus one more: empathy. My male superiors mostly expected me to do my job and not cause problems. So did the women, though without the usual macho posturing. In addition, they acted as if I had feelings, ideas and a life outside the office.
That life included the usual kids and mortgages, as well as a working spouse. Eventually, she and I both became bosses. I helped her with some technical things. She taught me how to listen, cultivate talent — and lead.
Our underlings, many of them gone to greater glory as bosses themselves, still send us messages of thanks, pass along occasional freelance work, even put us on boards. The other day, one of these hotshots drove 150 miles, each way, to buy us lunch. A woman, of course.