The revival of conservatism has placed the idea of the ‘strong-man leader’ under a spotlight and the shortcomings are as glaringly obvious as a large red wine stain on a pristine white tablecloth.  Bullyboys like Vladimir Putin, Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and our own Jacob Zuma, put millions of people at risk financially, ecologically and/or socio-politically.  For too many, these risks are literally a matter of life or death.  With their inflated egos egging them on, such self-serving leaders have little to offer, leaving many people asking what exactly are conservative leaders trying to conserve.

Instead, imagine what the world would look like if positions of power were held by people who prioritise human values like empathy and compassion. These people are not led by their fragile egos but by the idea of collaboration and inclusivity.

Imagine too how inclusivity could fast-track progress.  We know capitalism is unsustainable, inequality untenable and climate change is creating havoc, so prioritising innovation is necessary if we are to survive the current crisis.

Although inventors have been fetishized as extra-ordinary individuals who acted alone (Thomas Edison of the lightbulb fame and Alexander Fleming fabled founder of penicillin spring to mind) true history shows these life-transforming inventions emerged from a process of effective collaboration.

Contrary to popular belief, competitiveness does not liberate brilliance. It makes us feel threatened, so we keep watching our back.  Effective collaboration, on the other hand, creates safe spaces for our intelligence to play with new ideas.  When built on a foundation of trust, collective contribution promotes a climate of psychological safety which speeds up innovation, unlocks the benefits of diversity and gets people excited about change.

How does this translate into leadership?  It means we need to move away from the current authoritarian model of bluster and bravado and start looking at values such as empathy and collaboration; values that help people thrive.  These are the same values that female socialisation teaches women to prioritise. If we are to navigate the immense challenges ahead, leaders could benefit from taking their cues from such human values.

This is the premise of Arwa Mahdawi’s ground-breaking work; Strong Female Lead:  Rethinking Leadership in a World Gone Wrong.  She says when confidence is confused with competence, charlatans are elevated to the highest positions of power.

Intriguingly, Mahdawi starts her book by analysing the ascent to fame of the female con-artist Elizabeth Holmes. Holmes founded Theranos, a company selling a finger-prick blood-screening test that didn’t work. Even so, she was featured on the covers of Forbes and Fortune magazines, was valued at $9 billion at one point and had Henry Kissinger sit on her board. Mahdawi claims this story of a female fraudster tells us a lot about what is wrong with the current model of leadership; 19- year-old Holmes achieved her stratospheric ascent to notoriety by modelling exactly what the world expects from a leader.

So instead of encouraging women to lean into the ways of overconfident men whose egos eclipse their abilities, Mahdawi shows that our future could be well served by male or female leaders who exemplify the values of female socialisation.

It’s well known that the Covid-19 crisis was better managed in countries that were led by women, but Mahdawi also draws on countless other examples to show how attributes women are taught to value can benefit leadership during these challenging times.  The following are but a few examples:

  • Working for the greater good. Women have been consistently socialised to put others before themselves.
  • Females are socialised to value cooperation over competition.
  • Emotional due diligence. Instead of focusing on metrics, sustainability means considering both the economic and social value being created.
  • Long-term thinking. What will the future look like for our grandchildren’s grandchildren?
  • How do we cater for the wellbeing of the people we are designing the future for?
  • Human-centric. Constructive innovation prioritises the human element i.e. inclusive tech.
  • Being thankful creates an optimism grounded in a shared vision that creates real value. This is a vision that people are willing to act upon.
  • Trust – the glue that binds human relationships – is based on people seeing the real you.  It is about not shedding your humanity when you assume the leadership mantle.

Before you jump in with ‘not all women’, each of us could name dozens of women leaders who, like Holmes, act in their own interest. Equally, we can name a bunch of male leaders who put human values ahead of their egos.

The point is uncovering new social and political strategies is not about gender per se.  It is about dissecting the hierarchical military leadership model that got us into this mess in the first place so that we can replace it with one that views leadership through a female lens. This lens places humanity at the front and centre of all decision making.  After all, who are we in business for if not to serve the needs of the people we call our customers?  And who are most likely to understand these clients best?  The diverse range of people we pay to collaborate in creating more wholesome, inclusive solutions that lead us to a more equitable future.  In other words, a future that will enrich us all.