By the end of February, leaders across the globe were looking at the same facts: An invisible and dangerous enemy was fast approaching. COVID-19 was highly contagious, unpredictable, and deadly, even with an aggressive public policy response in China. So, what to do? How to prepare and respond? Leaders of cities, states and countries faced an unprecedented test.
In some ways, this moment in history offers a fascinating and real-time opportunity to understand the consequences of leadership decisions in a high-stakes situation. It all comes down to when governments enforced physical distancing. “If you really want to understand an apples-to-apples comparison of whether or not communities have been effective in slowing the spread, you have to look at three numbers,” says Trish Barrett, a healthcare executive with 25 years in infectious disease control and 19 years in supply chain and emergency management. “The number of new cases per week, the number of cases per 100,000 people, and the rate at which number of cases per capita doubles.”
It turns out that when you look at the data that way, three factors emerge as having a significant impact on the spread of the disease, and ultimately deaths: population density, exposure to those who traveled, and the date when things were shut down. The first two cannot really be influenced by a leader, but the shut-down date is directly related to actions taken by leaders. Indeed, the number of COVID-related deaths is predicted to be substantially lower in areas where leaders acted sooner, even by a week.
“Cities, states and countries that implemented a clear, thorough and well-executed social distance plan at least a week before their first death had radically different outcomes,” says Barrett. “In short, they flattened the curve and controlled and prevented new cases.”
Countries like Germany, New Zealand, Iceland and Finland (all with women leaders) fall into this category. In states like California, which also acted relatively quickly, the mayor of San Francisco, London Breed, the first black woman to ever hold that office, took action days before the governor of California and the mayor of Los Angeles (both men).
So many women acted first—and made the bold and unpopular call to shut down life as we knew it in the face of a truly invisible enemy—that I wanted to understand what we could all learn beyond the usual tropes of women being more emotionally intelligent and motherly. I didn’t think this could be entirely chalked up to their people skills, ability to engender trust and communicate empathetically. So, I turned to social scientists and people who write about leadership, human behavior, and gender differences to dig deeper.
Female leaders have to be competent and “throw the baby shower”
When Americans think about leadership, they think about men, period. A recent study asked both men and women to identify a leader they admire and 80% picked a man. Dr. Abbie Griffith Oliver, assistant professor at the J. Mack Robinson College of Business at Georgia State University, researches how people respond to female leaders. Oliver replicates this experiment every year in her class and only about 5% of her students, both men and women, identify a female leader, and, “It is typically Mother Theresa.”
Because of the implicit biases that we’ve all developed due to the profound lack of women in charge, female CEOs experience “benevolent sexism” every day. For example, governing boards are more likely to give advice to female CEOs and the media is more prone to use derogatory language to describe their leadership moves even when they are identical to their male counterparts. This has led to “women being in a ‘double bind,’” explains Oliver. “Women have learned they have to be both agentic and competent but also warm and throw the baby shower at work.”
We are accustomed to hearing that women are more other-directed and emotionally intelligent, which is actually proven in the research. But, it turns out women are just as good and sometimes better at some of what we think of as male qualities, like being decisive and making tough calls. Bobbi Thomason, an assistant professor of applied behavioral science at the Pepperdine Graziadio Business School, says that in a strange way the double standard for women, while unfair, also means they are more likely to be well-rounded leaders. Women have to cultivate “both the more ‘traditional male’ qualities and ‘traditional female’ qualities.” Having a diverse repertoire of leadership strategies has clearly served women well in leading through this current crisis.
Female leaders do not suffer from overconfidence—they seek input and listen
Several years ago the New Yorker published a cartoon depicting a man and a woman having dinner, where the man says, “Let me interrupt your expertise with my confidence.” It resonated with all of my Boss Lady friends—and it turns out that it’s also borne out in research. Men are, in fact, overconfident, and it creates blind spots in how they lead. They are also much more likely to lead by what a McKinsey study calls “control and corrective action.”
“In one study,” explains Therese Houston, author of How Women Decide, “71% of men reported that they thought they were smarter than the average American, with only 57% of women saying the same…there is plenty of research to show men are more likely to trust their own judgement and instincts when making decisions.” In yet another study, men express confidence in their ability to excel as leaders, even when they change sectors and their resume isn’t aligned with the new industry.
Women are more likely to cultivate a diverse set of advisors and a “wide network to help them succeed,” says Thomason from Pepperdine. Women are more likely to “pay top-dollar for advice and to follow it,” says Oliver.
But, several experts emphasized that we should not take such research findings to mean women are necessarily more other-directed or lacking in confidence than men. Female leaders are more likely to be blamed if decisions are unpopular or ineffective. They are also questioned and second-guessed more frequently. For these reasons, female leaders know they need more “cover” than men.
This resonated with me: The instinct to seek advice and listen isn’t entirely because of the need for input, it’s also because people are more likely to accept decisions from women when they don’t stand alone. “I bet if you looked at the pictures of women making announcements right now, they have more people behind them,” speculates Oliver.
Regardless of the reason, the ability to know what you don’t know and to listen to people with expert knowledge has clearly served women well right now. Several trailblazing women have indeed explicitly mentioned listening to experts now and as they manage the next phase. The only way to save lives is to skillfully act upon the advice of those who truly know the evolving science.
Female leaders rank higher not just on people-orientation, but also on vision-setting
Many studies have shown that women are, indeed, more focused on building community and teams. The McKinsey study pinpointed the essential characteristics of leadership and set out to determine the tendencies of men and women under normal circumstances, and in times of crisis. One finding: Women are indeed more “people-oriented”—and spend more time developing and coaching other leaders in their organization.
Sara Laschever, a female executive coach and c0-author of Ask For It: How Women Can Use the Power of Negotiation to Get What They Really Want, found women struggle when it comes to negotiating for themselves on topics such as salary and career advancement. But, they excel when they negotiate on behalf of the “general welfare” or the “common good.” Several of the experts I spoke to pointed out it is impossible to know if women are naturally more community-minded or if they have been socialized to know what society expects of them and what is required of them to lead. Either way, unleashing collective potential is a key leadership skill.
Oliver and several others also speculate that the public is more willing to accept women as leaders in the context of health and taking care of people. “When you skinned your knee, you went looking for your Mom…That’s a simplistic analogy, but I do wonder about when people actually accept women as viable leaders.”
But maybe women leaders should also be known for “getting shit done and breaking shit,” says Cindy Gallop, co-author of the highly clicked article,“7 Leadership Lessons Men Can Learn from Women,” in the Harvard Business Review. It turns out, women score highly on what so many consider to be the “hard skills” of leadership too, explains Gallop.
In the same McKinsey study, organizations with more than three women in the C-suite scored higher on employee survey questions about “direction” and “innovation.” Women tended to display (statistically more than their male counterparts) two things during and after a crisis. The first was “expectations and rewards”: defining roles, clarifying expectations, and rewarding achievement targets. The second was “inspiration”: offering a compelling vision of the future and an optimistic implementation plan.
“Women are just as decisive as men,” says Houston, “despite stereotypes otherwise.” Women also score higher than men on “task orientation” and in solving problems in creative and flexible ways.
In short, women possess the qualities of transformational leaders—vision, inspiration, direction-setting and out-of-the-box thinking—though so much of even the recent press has focused on the softer skills of how they lead.
Being other-directed and feeling a sense of commitment to the common good has likely been a key driver in women’s willingness to be out front during this crisis (and thank God). But, I have also been impressed with the competence and courage so many female leaders have displayed.
So much has been said, for example, about the “children’s press conference” by the Prime Minister of Norway and what it said about her emotional intelligence. But, so little has been said about her visionary multilateral cooperation plan and the well-executed measures she has taken to stop the spread.
Female leaders see and manage risk differently than their male counterparts
A famous study in 1994 made waves by identifying what is now referred to as the “white male effect.” It turns out that white men perceive the risks of health and technology hazards as low compared to women and people of color.
Experts and journalists have rightly written quite a bit about the costs of grossly incompetent federal responses in England and the United States: two countries run by men who downplayed the risks of the virus until it was too late. This inability to see risk has also had dire consequences in the tech industry—run largely by white men—who failed to predict or plan for breaches in cybersecurity to disastrous effect.
Gallop speculates that this is because “women, people of color, the disabled wake up to risk everyday so they have to see it. Women are at risk everyday so we see it differently, assess it differently, and act in the face of it differently.”
In another study, scientists observed the cortisol levels of men and women in response to physical stress and asked them to respond to different scenarios. Men were much more likely to fight back and to choose more risky pathways in the face of stress, whereas women were less likely to experience big changes at all. In the face of risk, women are more likely to make data-driven, sure-bet decisions as opposed to risky ones where the downsides are big and unknowable.
This body of research is often summarized in the following manner: Women are less likely to take risks during a crisis than men. I struggled with this concept in the context of leadership and COVID-19. It strikes me as incredibly risky and bold that Mayor Breed, for example, a young black woman, shut down the city before there were many confirmed cases and no confirmed deaths and before either the state or federal government had acted.
“I guess it all comes down to the definition of risk,” I say to Houston, who agrees. When you consider the research, she says, “the fact that men are more decisive than women doesn’t hold up.”
I wonder if we tend to think of risk-taking as a good thing simply because it is affiliated with men. But, as Gallop and I discuss, it is recklessness borne out of the privilege of not having to see or consider the consequences of risky decisions. In a way, risk-blind decision-making is a kind of gambling. In the case of COVID-19, it’s gambling with people’s lives.
Females face the ‘Glass Cliff,’ and figure they might as well jump
The ultimate irony in all of the research I reviewed and discussed: women are more likely to get their shot at being the big boss when there is a crisis. They are also more likely to be blamed for the crisis (even if it started before them) and to be criticized if there are negative consequences during a crisis (even if those consequences are inevitable). This is not true of men.
Researchers calls this the “glass cliff”—and I’ve commiserated with many female leaders about the no-win nature of navigating this catch-22.
“I am just speculating here,” says Oliver, “but perhaps women know they are damned if they do something and damned if they don’t, so they just do the right thing.” Here again, being the target of opposition and the victim of implicit biases could be an advantage right now. We know from research that women are less driven by self-interest—but also maybe they know they have less to lose. It has me wondering if women, consciously or unconsciously, know they can’t win in the court of public opinion, and this frees them up to do the right thing.
Another way of thinking about it, says Thomason, is that women are doing well during this crisis because what they are doing—negotiating for the common good—is aligned with what women do socially and what people expect from them.
In just about every sector, including the leadership of countries, cities, and states, women are vastly underrepresented and face enormous obstacles to leading. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it should cause us to be concerned that we don’t have our best leaders running things. It turns out women can display a host of leadership skills that are not at all limited to the things we talk about and hear about all the time.
The story of the spread and unthinkable human tragedies of COVID-19 is the ultimate case study in high-stakes leadership. I don’t think any of us can afford to miss the lessons here. All leaders, including men, can learn from what we have seen women do in this crisis.
And, anyone in a position to rethink the majority male C-suites and board rooms in their organization should reflect. We think of gender diversity as being about representation, but COVID-19 shows us it is about high-quality, life-saving leadership.