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According to several studies, men and women tend to manage business differently – But the smart managers of either gender adopt the best from each style and apply it appropriately in particular circumstances. By Shane Cassidy

Is one gender better than the other at business management? Or is gender a red herring, veiling different managerial qualities that can be used positively by men or women to bring about a successful outcome?

Webster's Dictionary defines leadership as "the office or position to direct operations, activity or performance; to have charge of." This is a very traditional view of leadership, where the leader is a person ‘in charge’ who is ‘directing’ what is happening. In today's world, however, leadership is more than a collection of management actions. It is a way of being, a flexible approach to all activities that simultaneously guides and empowers others. And there are now more women attaining strategic leadership roles in the business community than there were 30 years ago.

There is a parable about gender and leadership capabilities. If male and female leadership styles differ, is one inferior? If this parable is true, could it be that all women are better team players than men; more open and mature in the way they handle sensitive issues; and more conscious of their impact on others and, therefore, better people managers than men? Are all men more aggressive and competitive in their leadership style with less regard for others?

An international survey by Cranfield School of Management (UK) comparing top male and female managers in the private and public sector clearly showed that women are no better or worse than men at management and leadership. It depends on the person in question and the organisation for which they work.

Misconceptions about the leadership-gender relationship can adversely affect hiring, performance evaluation, promotion, and other human resource decisions for both men and women.


Different Styles

Autocratic style describes a leader who tends to centralise authority, dictate work methods, make unilateral decisions, and limit subordinate participation. Other people are usually not involved in the decision-making process.

One major problem with this style of leadership is that it fails to develop leadership in subordinates. Since the leader makes all the decisions, other leaders aren't necessary. This also stifles creativity and discourages innovation. Another problem of autocratic leadership is the perceived lack of sensitivity to the feelings of others. The lack of care for human feelings can discourage people from doing their work.

For the democratic style, the group is the centre. The leader moderates discussion while getting ideas from the group. Since the democratic leader develops a ‘team feeling’, subordinates generally like this style best.

Without a trained or motivated group, this leadership fails. The subordinates must desire to be involved and know enough to contribute something tangible. The people under the democratic leader must feel their opinions are being considered, or morale will be lowered. This style of leadership also stifles the abilities of a single genius within the group, since their ideas will be heard on equal grounds. The democratic process also takes time, which can be costly.

The group under a laissez-faire style of leadership is given maximum freedom, while the leader desires minimum control and leadership. This leader only gives help when requested. Instead of the leader taking control, he is seen as the ‘first among equals’. This leader desires to provide information and help as needed.

Coordination and control are the two biggest problems with this style of leadership. Without a motivated, trained, and experienced group, this leadership style tends to fail. Subordinates can also feel that the leader doesn't care for them, since there is so little contact and control. Jealousy and friction can arise due to conflicting staff programs.


Choosing Direction

As well as the different styles, there are different leadership approaches. Transformational leaders provide individualised consideration and intellectual stimulation, and generally possess charisma. Transactional leaders guide or motivate their followers in the direction of established goals by clarifying role and task requirements.

Over recent years, a number of studies have focused on gender and leadership. Their general conclusion is that males and females do use different styles. Specifically, men use a more directive form of leadership while women tend to adopt a more democratic or participative style that is less autocratic. Men are also more likely to use a directive, ‘command and control’ style, relying on formal authority for their influence base. Men tend to use transactional leadership, handing out rewards for good work and punishment for bad. Conversely, women tend to use transformational leadership, motivating others by transforming their self-interest into the goals of the organisation. Women are more likely to encourage participation, share power and information, and attempt to enhance followers’ self-worth. They tend to lead through inclusion and rely on their charisma, expertise, contacts, and interpersonal skills to influence others.

However, when women are placed in male-dominated roles there is a tendency for female leaders to lose some of their democratic skills. In a male-dominated environment, the group norms, expectations, and stereotypes of male roles override the personal leadership preferences of women, and so they abandon their ‘natural’ style and act more autocratically.

Although some scholars believe transformational and transactional leadership are at opposite ends of the scale, a US psychologist and leadership scholar, Bernard Bass found these two approaches to leadership to be independent and complementary. Bass asserts that transactional leadership entails an exchange between leader and follower in which the leader rewards the follower for specific behaviours and for performance that meets with the leader's wishes; and criticises, sanctions, or punishes non-conformity or lack of achievement. He refers to transactional leaders as managers, and says they concentrate on compromise, intrigue, and control. They focus on the process not the substance of the issues. Bass also argues that research comparing the effects of transactional and transformational leadership has shown, in general, that transformational leadership is more effective and satisfying than transactional leadership alone, although every leader does some of each.


Blending Qualities

In today’s organisations, whether it is small or medium enterprise, global corporation, public or private sector, flexibility, teamwork, trust and information sharing are rapidly replacing rigid structures, competitive individualism, control and secrecy. The best leaders listen, motivate and provide support to their people. They inspire and influence rather than control. As an example, the expanded use of cross-functional teams in organisations means effective leaders must become skilful negotiators. Generally, women’s leadership style allows them to be better at negotiating. They do not focus on the wins, losses and the competition as men do. Yet, is this what is always needed? In some instances a more directive approach is required to ensure achievement of organisational goals. Therefore, modern leaders need a blend of transformational and transactional approaches to leadership. Just because research shows that on average more women are transformational and more men are transactional, this doesn’t mean a person can’t possess both approaches in their personal leadership style.

The current research does suggest there is a general relationship between gender and leadership style. However, gender does not imply destiny for the individual. Not all female leaders prefer a democratic style and many men use transformational leadership. And so, we need to show caution when labelling leadership styles by gender. To refer to a feminine or masculine style of l
eadership may create more confusion than clarity. The essence of any truly successful leader is the ability to use a variety of leadership styles based on the requirements of the situation at hand, and to be able to influence their subordinates to achieve the organisational goal.

*Shane Cassidy is director of training development and management company, Strategix Consultancy. Contact him at shane@strategixconsultancy.com He wishes to reference Management, Robbins et al, 2000.

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