Wise Leadership Isn't a Gender Issue

Whether women, or men, or both invented it – empathy, even in adversarial relationships, is invariably the wisest approach.  


What’s the Big Idea? 

Women in prominent leadership positions frequently get asked about gendered differences in leadership style. Are women more collaborative? Is an aggressive negotiating style a more “naturally” masculine trait? Susan Schwab, who negotiated complex, high-stakes international trade agreements during the Bush administration as deputy US trade representative, says that experience is far more determinative of leadership style than gender. 

Possibly, maybe, for what it’s worth, Schwab says, men tend to escalate negotiations more hastily toward a zero-sum situation, while women tend to prefer win-win outcomes. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that a negotiation style in which each party fully understands the other’s goals and limits, and seeks a mutually agreeable outcome (with the maximum benefit for her own side), is more likely to yield positive results than a Mexican standoff or a brawl. 

Even good faith negotiations can break down, and when they do, says Schwab, there’s an art to knowing when and how to walk away. Knowing when is a matter of recognizing your own limits of compromise – the boundaries beyond which the deal is more harmful than beneficial to your cause. Knowing how is easier: don’t burn your bridges. No matter how tense and difficult negotiations get, it’s better to walk away with mutual disappointment and the possibility of returning to the table later than to let things devolve into drama and recrimination. 

Former US Deputy Trade Representative Susan Schwab on one of the tensest, most high-stakes negotiations of her life, and how she walked away gracefully when the deal broke down.  

What’s the Significance?  

One of the most valuable reasons to move the conversation away from gendered differences in leadership style, is that it obscures the real question of what works best, when. 

In politics, perception often rules the day, and Americans tend not to like their leaders “wishy-washy.” This leads to all kinds of trouble, as demonstrating the kind of “backbone” that keeps you in office can easily translate into making stupid – yet definitive – decisions. There’s a good chance that our lingering love of certainty (well-informed or otherwise) is a hangover from old, gendered notions of what’s “manly” and what isn’t, which continue to be reinforced in our most successful action movies; these haven’t evolved much beyond John Wayne Westerns in terms of the basic notions of what constitutes strength and weakness. Strength is beating people up. Weakness is getting beaten (or not fighting at all). 

Yet a sober analysis makes plain the fact that successful leadership means arriving at the best possible outcomes in the long-term, which often involves a subtler and less martial approach. Whether women, or men, or both invented it – empathy, even in adversarial relationships, is invariably the wisest approach.  

Follow Jason Gots (@jgots) on Twitter

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

For a long time, the West shaped the world. That time is over.

The 21st century is experiencing an Asianization of politics, business, and culture.

  • Our theories about the world, even about history or the geopolitics of the present, tend to be shaped by Anglo perspectives of the Western industrial democracies, particularly those in the United States and the United Kingdom.
  • The West, however, is not united. Canada, for instance, acts in many ways that are not in line with American or British policies, particularly in regard to populism. Even if it were united, though, it would not represent most of the world's population.
  • European ideas, such as parliamentary democracy and civil service, spread across the world in the 19th century. In the 20th century, American values such as entrepreneurialism went global. In the 21st century, however, what we're seeing now is an Asianization — an Asian confidence that they can determine their own political systems, their own models, and adapt to their own circumstances.
Keep reading Show less

Why modern men are losing their testosterone

Research has shown that men today have less testosterone than they used to. What's happening?

Flickr user Tom Simpson
Sex & Relationships
  • Several studies have confirmed that testosterone counts in men are lower than what they used to be just a few decades ago.
  • While most men still have perfectly healthy testosterone levels, its reduction puts men at risk for many negative health outcomes.
  • The cause of this drop in testosterone isn't entirely clear, but evidence suggests that it is a multifaceted result of modern, industrialized life.
Keep reading Show less

Why the ocean you know and love won’t exist in 50 years

Can sensitive coral reefs survive another human generation?

  • Coral reefs may not be able to survive another human decade because of the environmental stress we have placed on them, says author David Wallace-Wells. He posits that without meaningful changes to policies, the trend of them dying out, even in light of recent advances, will continue.
  • The World Wildlife Fund says that 60 percent of all vertebrate mammals have died since just 1970. On top of this, recent studies suggest that insect populations may have fallen by as much as 75 percent over the last few decades.
  • If it were not for our oceans, the planet would probably be already several degrees warmer than it is today due to the emissions we've expelled into the atmosphere.
Keep reading Show less