Why male bosses need to 'woman up'

Traditionally female leadership qualities can be learned, says 'aware' MD Michael Brown.

by Michael Brown
Last Updated: 08 Mar 2018

As we know, there are too many pairs of brogues strutting across the topside of the glass ceiling. At least 50% of the population may also suspect some organisations have had that same ceiling carpeted over. It would be one way of protecting male C-suite executives from the upward gaze of equally talented female colleagues.

More talented in many cases:

The Psychology of Entrepreneurship Study by the University of Cambridge and a survey of 16,000 leaders by Business Insider, among others, have suggested women are more effective than us men in business and politics.

According to the United Nations, ‘There’s established and growing evidence that women's leadership in political decision-making processes improves them."


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I’m going to spell that out, underline it and add italics; they mean the outcome of political situations are better than they would have been if merely left to men. As one example they report the number of clean drinking water projects in India in areas with women led Panchayats (councils) was a massive 62% higher than councils with men running the show. Plainly the guys think their constituents need to man up! I mean who needs water, right?

Fight/flight or tend/befriend?

It’s also possible to interpret recent science to show a female advantage.

In 2012, Dr Joohyung Lee and Professor Vincent Harley believed they had found the gene that drives male orientation towards aggression when under stress. Predictably it was christened the ‘Macho Gene’ in news reports at the time.

Its correct name is SRY; it triggers the development of the testes and secretes hormones to masculinise the body. If absent, a female foetus develops. This had been thought to be the sole function of SRY until Lee and Harley threw their scientific gloves into the ring to propose it may drive an exclusive disposition for males to come out swinging at times of heightened stress, or to run away: fight or flight.

It transpires SRY exists in other male body parts; the heart, brain, lungs, kidneys and the adrenal glands – the organ deployed in primary responses to stress. SRY creates specific male-only effects in these organs including the ‘fight/flight’ response whenever the adrenalin gland kicks into gear.

For women, research now indicates a different response: ‘tend or befriend’.

Fight/Flight fails as a survival strategy for women because historically they have taken primary roles in ensuring the little’uns become the big’uns. The same Darwinian forces selecting for ‘Fight/Flight’ in males work the other way in females: high maternal investment favouring responses that don’t jeopardise the survival of the nippers; ‘befriending’ activity such as affiliation and collaboration with their social group, creating networks to provide mutually assured support during stressful times. Tend or befriend means reaching out, building trust, defusing conflict, putting the kettle on and breaking out the Rich Teas.

The benefits of female leadership

The Psychology of Entrepreneurship study found female CEOs generated more profits than their male counterparts. They were more likely to maintain business outlooks favouring controlled growth, reinvesting profits over taking equity out. They were more averse to risks that may mess up their employees’ livelihoods.

Looking back to the Indian UN case study; there’s evidence of ‘Tend/Befriend’ qualities driving policy decisions – a community water project qualifies as ‘tending’. As would UN findings in Norway showing direct links between the presence of women on councils and levels of childcare legislation.

This may stray too close to the cliché of female leaders as ‘nurturing’ types, but the study also suggested women outperformed men in taking initiative, getting things done and driving for hard results.The study claimed these were ‘not nurturing competencies’, inferring they are commonly assumed qualities of male leaders.

Is it possible that these so called ‘male’ business qualities are smoothed at the edges by the fine-grained sandpaper of ‘Tend/Befriend’, with the full spectrum of competencies coming together in women to make for more rounded leadership? If so, we men clearly need to explore whether or not we can ignore the klaxon call of our testicles and… woman up.

The best of both worlds

My personal role models in this endeavour includes the two female business partners on my management board; both can engage their inner Boadicea in the hand to hand combat sometimes required in business, and in the next breath are elbow deep creating an induction programme ensuring our newbies have a motivating experience in their first weeks. My past motivations have been the competing for and closing of deals, driving growth – exclusively fight mode.

Since becoming ‘aware’ I have been trying to channel ‘Tend/Befriend’ to counter my male ‘Fight/Flight’ instincts in the board room. Will it make me a better leader?

Interestingly the Business Insider research concluded by ranking gender against competencies essential to success including communicating prolifically, developing others, being collaborative – behaviours you could view through a ‘Tend/Befriend’ lens. Describing these qualities as competencies is salient - a competency is learned. With practice, there’s every reason to believe I could become a tender befriender.

However, effective leaders measure their actions by requesting feedback from colleagues, then up their game accordingly. In the study, women were shown to practise this competency throughout their working life. For men it tended to fall away as they aged. Obviously, we stallions need a stern reminder to drink deeply while being led to water.

Michael Brown is Managing Director at agency MKTG. 

Image credit: ESB Professional/Shutterstock

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