Universal truths of female leadership

A quick look back into the history books shows us that there have always been as many wise, compassionate and gracious female leaders as male – Catherine the Great, Elizabeth Fry, Queen Victoria, Indira Gandhi, and Emmeline Pankhurst to name a few. Yet with so many role models and inspirational women going before, somehow our industrialised world tipped the balance in favour of male leaders. The call today to balance leadership across the genders is loud and clear so I thought it worthwhile to understand what it actually is that women apparently bring to the leadership space, and why is it so valued? What is the actual ingredient that gives company’s with a greater representation of females in c-suite or board roles, better bottom line results?

The Peterson Institute for International Economics, using a global dataset of nearly 22,000 firms, examined the impact of gender diversity on corporate performance. It consistently reports that mixed-gender boards outperform all-male boards and that companies with the highest proportion of women in senior leadership roles performed significantly better than firms with the lowest proportion. The MSCI Women on Boards report drills down into the figures. It states that companies with women represented well at the top produce a return on equity of 10.1% per year as opposed to 7.4% for companies with weaker female representation. It’s official and we all know it.

So what is it? What do women bring to leadership roles that is so beneficial to their organisations? If we could quantify it, bottle it, what would it be? An understanding of the Tsao principle of Yin and Yang is required to truly comprehend the answer. Yin and Yang states that all things exist as inseparable and contradictory opposites. Female-male, night-day and old-young to name a few. The two opposites attract and complement each other with each side having at its core, an element of the other. Neither pole is superior to the other and, as an increase in one brings a corresponding decrease in the other, a correct balance between the two poles must be reached in order to achieve harmony. We see this in the laws of nature all the time. The turning of the Earth generates the pattern of the rising sun and the setting sun. This generates day and night, while the ocean tides are cyclical and rise and fall in a never-ending continuous motion.

Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished ~ Lao Tzu.

On the surface it seems a gender balanced board simply aligns with natural universal patterns and ancient teachings so is logically bound to succeed. But all female boards succeed too, as do all male. So lets unpack what’s tipping the scale.

Yin is soft, while yang is hard. A hard communication style may sound direct, decisive and sharp; while looking confident and assertive. Yang is primarily concerned with the why and the how, and is perceived as strong and dominant .The opposite, the yin communication style is calm and thoughtful; appearing considered and relaxed. Yin is concerned with what and who, and feels kind, caring and inclusive. I’m sure you can see and appreciate that both communication styles are required to be mastered by every leader, and which to apply, or a blend of both is highly contextual. Traditionally, our workplaces have been heavily weighted with yang communication, the naturally dominant style for men.

At this point, let me be really clear. In each and every one of us is both yin and yang, both feminine and masculine, soft and hard, slow and fast, light and dark. Individually, our challenge is to harness and master both sides of each pole, bringing the right energy at the right time, and balance as required. Since very few of us are masters at this practice, we tend to get it wrong sometimes.

Yin is slow, and yang is fast. We are living in an era of unprecedented change where uncertainty is now certain. The adaptability and flexibility needed to navigate disruption are typical traits of the yang. Yang is results orientated, takes risks and welcomes change and challenge. It typically moves quickly and has a bias for action. While yin is conservative, reasoned and slower to respond to change; it delivers a safe, calm and quiet assurance in the face of change. With a bias for stillness, yin is typically comfortable and quiet.

Yang is the hunt: the space of hunger, determination and competition. It promotes division and individualism. While yin is the nest. The place for nurture, understanding and compassion. The space of connection, unity and collaboration between all.

Nothing is completely yin or completely yang. Individually we have both, sometimes weighted in favour of yin, sometimes yang. Organisations have both too, with our workplaces traditionally weighted in yang. As the child bearer of the species, women have a stronger, natural yin. Our evolution (and immense privilege) to continue as primary care givers means that yin is more accessible for women. And it is the yin, coupled with the wisdom of balance that women are bringing to the board room.

You must learn to be still in the midst of activity and vibrantly alive in repose ~ Indira Gandhi.

Opposing but complimentary forces with their duality forming the whole, the challenge for us all is to access both, harness both and bring forward the most appropriate energy at the appropriate time. The master will find the blend, the perfect merging of the two – steely calm, clarity in diversity or active compassion.