Differences in Gender Strengths

Barry Posner

Q: Recently, Harvard Business Review published an article about research conducted at INSEAD on 360-degree evaluations (specifically, the Global Executive Leadership Inventory). The results show that women tend to score better than men in almost every leadership category, except for Envisioning, and the article went on to offer three theories as possible explanations: 1) women use a different process for shaping the future, 2) women don't feel it is appropriate to use vague ideas when planning for the future, or 3) women may not see the value in a vision. What do you think of this? What does the LPI data tell you?

A: While the battle between the genders continues to range on, let me go out on a limb here and make one of those "blinding flashes of the obvious" statements like: males and females have different strengths, in general. The same can be said for tall people and short people. And green people and purple people–even Jim Kouzes and I–have different strengths–in general.

There is no formula for explaining 100 percent of the variance around leadership effectiveness, including our own Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®. What we've generally found is that effective leaders are the ones who can engage most in The Five Practices?and this is independent of gender (indeed of a whole range of demographic and organizational factors).

For example, our own recent analysis of LPI data reveals statistically significant differences between males and females, but ones that may have little practical significance. A comparison of 7400 men with 4600 women on the LPI-Self found no differences on the leadership practices of Challenging and Inspiring (this latter finding is in direct contradiction to the HBR-reported study). Females reported engaging in Modeling, Enabling and Encouraging more than their male counterparts empirically. But consider what the practical implications of those differences really mean (on Modeling for females, 45.95; for males, 45.24). The scores from female observers about their leaders are empirically higher than those of male observers but is this because of real differences in the behavior of their leaders or a methodological artifact that females give higher scores than do males of other people?

We also just completed a four-year long study of leadership development involving college students. In their first year, females and males reported no difference in their practice of Inspiring, Enabling and Encouraging. Males viewed themselves as more engaged in Modeling than females, while females viewed themselves as engaged more in Challenging than their male counterparts. However, by the time these same students were in their senior year, there were no statistically significant differences between their engagement as leaders, based upon gender. As a side note, this study showed that the leadership development intervention for all of these first-year students resulted in a statistically significant increase in their self-reported leadership practices by the time they were seniors.

So, if gender makes a difference (?), the real point is that in developing effective leaders we must pay a great deal of attention and create a deep understanding of the strengths and areas of improvement necessary for each person –as an individual– to unleash and enhance his or her existing talents.

Barry Z. Pozner is Dean of the Leavey School of Business and Professor of Leadership at Santa Clara University where he has received numerous teaching and innovation awards. He is co-author of The Leadership Challenge and A Leader's Legacy.

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