The biggest mistake to make about leadership is to think you have it all worked out. Just when you believe you have the answers, the rules of the game change.
Few subjects are more thoroughly studied and less understood than leadership.
Rarely a week goes by without another initiative, a new book or a conference on the subject. Coaches and lecturers queue up to offer advice and courses on what is needed to be an effective leader.
One of the areas where the rules are changing, and changing fast, is in prevailing attitudes on whether men or women are better equipped to lead. Our contribution to this debate is simple, yet surprising. Earlier this year we surveyed 1,000 middle and senior UK managers with a questionnaire exploring fundamental issues about men and women as managers. The sample was split evenly by gender and included veteran managers over 40 as well as young high-flyers. Our results turned recent thinking on its head.
A majority of our respondents did not think men make better bosses than women. They did not particularly prefer to work for a boss of the same sex, nor did they believe male leaders were more likely to inspire confidence among their staff.
After years of women having to suppress their natural behaviour in the workplace, our findings show that the pendulum is swinging the other way.
A plausible argument can now be made that men need to find and express their more feminine characteristics to be successful leaders in the new millennium. The future need not be female, but it is certainly feminine - at least when it comes to such leadership skills as praising staff, managing time and being seen as more trustworthy and solicitous. Women themselves continue to face formidable obstacles and prejudices in recruitment and promotion, but there is no doubt that more and more of us are going to find ourselves, at every level, being managed by women.
With more people trying today to balance their careers with their private lives, these so-called feminine skills will be among those required by companies which hope to recruit and retain the best people.
Successful modern managers will understand the painful decisions confronting colleagues who are ambitious for success at home as well as in the workplace. In our recent work/life research, one of the keys you mentioned in terms of job satisfaction was the occasional thank you and praise. Being able to trust your boss can also be a critical factor and one, according to the gender survey, where women have the advantage over men - with a majority of managers trusting that a woman boss is less likely to steal their ideas or take credit for their work. Where in the past women who aspired to management were encouraged to be more manly, it looks now as if the boot is on the other foot.