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New Model Army: How Women Are Already Changing the Way We Lead

17/04/2015 14:11 BST | Updated 16/06/2015 10:59 BST

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Why can't a woman be more like a man? Henry Higgins's lament may sound antiquated, but it's surprisingly in tune with remarks made by a few senior women at a recent event: 'Give it a go, like blokes do,' advised one. 'Fake it, like men,' suggested another.

Why the constant reference to how men do it? If Women's History Month demonstrated anything, it's how many role models women have of our own, from IT's Dame Stephanie 'Steve' Shirley (pictured) and logistics' Hilary Devey to Dame Marjorie Scardino to Pepsico's Indra Nooyi to GlencoreXstrata's Patrice Merrin. There are female entrepreneurs redefining markets (Martha Lane Fox, Natalie Massenet), influencers in education (Professor Linda Scott) and the environment (Ceres's Mindy Lubber), not to mention politics and economics. There are start-up founders at the forefront of the 'purpose economy'. I could go on.

Many of these female role models aren't just blending in with the status quo. They are spearheading a different style of leadership.

This was neatly embodied in an image from the latest BBC General Election debate, when the three female party leaders hugged at the end of the event.

While political leadership is still wedded to the tradition of antagonistic leaders, that huddle offered a glimpse of something more human - open-handedness, reciprocal respect - that's rarely seen in UK politicking.

The shift is further underway in business circles. While we have a way to go - research by Cambridge Judge Business School recently put the UK ninth behind Australia, Ireland, Scandinavia and the Netherlands when it comes to women's economic power - the deeper shift in leadership thinking suggests that women's influence is already being felt.

Research from advocacy and membership group Catalyst suggests that the qualities we value in our leaders are less the hard-nosed variety than those based on an 'inclusive mindset'.

These qualities match closely those of the conscious leader, who is good at enabling others to excel and develop, and shows trust in people by holding them accountable. Conscious leaders are also self-effacing and humble, staying open to others' views while remaining true to their own principles and values.

These may not be specifically 'feminine' qualities, but they do epitomise a move to what is being called 'soft power'.

It's not necessarily that women are better; it's just that their presence in positions of authority lends greater diversity and in doing so, enhances decision making.

From commander to consensus-builder

The traditional, hard-driving leader figure just doesn't seem to fit the challenges or opportunities we're facing right now.

Big issues such as resource scarcity, social and economic inequality now crop up as part of everyday life. Thanks to technology, we can't feign ignorance about how our behaviour impacts others. Leaders now find themselves involved with a far broader group of stakeholders than their predecessors. Consumers care more about provenance and corporate ethics. Millennials want to make an impact at work. Governments seek to curb excesses through regulation.

Those in charge are aware of the shifting priorities -- even if they don't feel quite equal to them yet.

There's a kind of 'reverse innovation' going on in leadership - focusing less on the one person at the top than on the many. It's not a question of 'followership', but of imbuing everyone with a sense of purpose and accountability. Leading then becomes part of everyone's remit.

Henry Mintzberg talks about this as 'communityship'. "Think of the organizations you most admire. I'll bet that front and center is a powerful sense of community," he says.

Henry Leberecht identifies it as a renewed sense of meaning or romance, "the quest to create more romantic capital for society overall. Striving to achieve a fundamental redefinition of what it means to be a company," as he puts it here.

Inherent in all of this is the belief in the fundamental humanity of organisations, "one that puts people doing the work at the center rather than as appendages to the business [and] requires actively rejecting or replacing many elements of late 20th century management and societal norms," writes Work Futures's Stowe Boyd.

It's about shedding the mythology surrounding leadership with a simple question: why?

Is a competitive culture the best way to get everyone working towards the same goal?

Are 'outlier' organisations such as B-Corps and social enterprises a useful model for the kind of leadership we need to face tomorrow's big challenges?

Why do we work - where do you find meaning and motivation in what you do?

A chance for change

You could see it as burdensome, but the flip side is that it presents us with incredible opportunities. Here is a chance for us to have a positive impact on some of the world's most pressing problems.

For that to happen, we need a far more inclusive template, a 'new spirit of leadership, wisdom, accountability and awareness is being called for to ensure the sustainability of our planet and the future of our children," writes Heidi Carter.

That leadership balances personal and collective awareness, and is open to dissenting voices and different points of view. It's a style women can influence.

"Women's strengths of collaboration, empathy, and building a consensus are highly prized in a networked working world," said Helena Morrissey at the recent Cambridge Judge Womenomics event.

But we can't 'fake it till we make it'. We need to be ourselves.

(Photograph of Dame Stephanie Shirley courtesy of University of Exeter, CC 2.0)