Do men and women really differ in the way they lead? Absolutely. But while most of us easily recognize and appreciate the differences in our personal relationships, it is not always so easy to see them in the business world. Yet, with more women in management roles today, it is important to understand the differing dynamics of male and female leadership styles and to use them to foster more productive work environments.
According to Vangela M. Wade, an attorney and certified diversity management practitioner with the Wade Group of Jackson, Miss.: “Perhaps one of the most influential factors on male and female leadership styles is communication style, which is derived from a distinct gender culture. Research indicates that men and women communicate in vastly different ways, which surpasses personal relationships and extends into their professional communication styles. For example, generally, men tend to communicate in a hierarchical, goal-oriented style, viewed as authoritative, decisive and efficient. On the other hand, women, generally, tend to communicate with a focus on process and the engagement of others in reaching goals and making decisions.”
Wade says these two distinct styles often affect how successful male and female leaders are perceived in today’s business and professional arenas. “Our society expects male leaders to be aggressive, authoritative and stern, but fair and decisive in their judgments and decisions. However, women with the same leadership or communication styles are sometimes said to be too emotional, difficult to work with or for and too aggressive. Even women subordinates sometimes find it difficult to work for women leaders with what is viewed as a ‘masculine’ style. Generally, women are more comfortable communicating with other women in a level, ‘dead-even’ style—even at differing levels of authority.”
What one sex sees as a strength may be viewed as a problem or weakness by the other. Listening and acknowledging are important traits to women, but they can be tiresome to men. Men tend to make decisions faster than women and to be more aggressive, which can be frustrating to women because women are more willing to ask questions and seek input from others.
Nonverbal communication does not always have the same meaning for women and men either. An act as simple as the nod of a head can have a different meaning; women nod to show they are listening while men nod to show they agree. It is important to recognize and work with these differences.
The best leaders of both sexes recognize the need to blend authority with empathy, and aggressiveness with encouragement, Wade says. The key to good leadership is knowing when to use the communication style that is most effective for the situation and the people involved. When a situation requires immediate decision and action, the hierarchical communication style is most appropriate. But in situations without an immediate deadline, it is generally most productive to obtain input and buy-in from those who will ultimately have the responsibility of action.
Good leadership is not male or female; it is simply good leadership. Successful leaders adapt to meet the needs of a particular situation. They empower an organization to attract and retain the most talented employees, to optimize growth and productivity, to attract and retain clients and to maintain a better quality of management. And, perhaps most important, they are the models for the people who will become tomorrow’s leaders.
—Angela L. Beasley, CPA, is a senior manager with Horne LLP in Jackson, Miss.