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The role of gender in leadership

Text100 CEO Aedhmar Hynes explains how the gender debate distracts from what organizations really need in a leader

Text100 CEO Aedhmar Hynes explains how the gender debate distracts from what organizations really need in a leader

Every March, Women’s History Month provides commentators and executives the opportunity to write at length about women in leadership. Sometimes the subject is women who have succeeded to break into leadership ranks. More often, it’s about the lack of gender diversity in the C-suite and boardroom. Either way, one constant in these conversations – whether in presentations at international conferences or the online commentary about the “Fearless Girl” statue on Wall Street – is the supposed difference in leadership styles between men and women.

As a woman and a CEO of a global company, I am a strong believer in providing greater leadership opportunities for women. I also believe we should be talking a lot more about what makes great leaders. What I don’t think we should do is engage in endless debates about whether men or women are inherently better at leadership, for one basic reason.

Great leadership is genderless.

While some of the skills of a good leader are often labelled as “male,” and others seen as traditionally “female,” it is the proper blending of all those skills that one needs to be a good leader.  In my experience, a successful leader is one who establishes the right values in an organization, applies those values to make sound decisions, and maintains a culture that presents people with challenges and opportunities for growth in equal measure.

Such a leader fosters a workplace environment where diversity is respected and welcomed. That means not only gender diversity, but a diversity of backgrounds, experiences and approaches to problem solving that will constantly put the best ideas on the table.

I’ve tried to create such a culture in my organization and allow it to flourish naturally. The result is that we now have a strong balance of men and women at all levels, even though mine is a female-dominated industry. We don’t have a quota for female leadership, because our culture’s respect for diversity naturally promotes the right people for the right job, regardless of gender.

At the same time, the inescapable truth is that women in the business world almost always are forced to deal with far more difficult challenges than men.

In addition to high expectations in the workplace, women are frequently expected to play the traditional female roles of mother, cook, home organizer, school volunteer, planner – and, despite advances in biotechnology –  only women can give birth. Women also continue to earn less than men doing the same work, deal with “mansplaining” and being spoken over at meetings, are subject to inappropriate comments on their appearance, and outright harassment. The glass ceiling is all too real in many companies and industries, and women who manage to break through must still deal with those extra challenges, being criticized as “too cold and pushy” if they are assertive, but not really leadership material if they appear empathetic and listen.

The kind of culture that good leaders will build, and that we’ve tried to build at my company, will inherently acknowledge those issues and accommodate the different needs of women in the workplace. That includes maternity (and paternity) leave; the ability for new parents to come back from leave on a part-time basis and build back up to full time; flexible working hours so that a “lunch” break could also be time for a school visit; tools so people can do their jobs wherever and whenever they need; and the ability to bring children to work when the unexpected happens. This flexibility applies to everyone, men as well as women.

A leader who creates this culture will find it not only pays dividends inside the organization, but has immense benefit to the brand.

Companies in today’s environment are increasingly judged on their culture and values. Millennial consumers, armed with social media, have made culture an important consideration along with the quality and value of a company’s product or service. They have been especially harsh on startups that, despite delivering great disruptive ideas, have sometimes suffered because of flawed corporate cultures that disrespect their female employees.

In almost every instance, that flawed culture stems from a leader with a flawed character. That’s why it’s so important to have the right mix of leadership from the outset; once such a damaged culture has grown inside a new company, it’s almost impossible to eradicate, no matter how many great women leaders you recruit later.

In fact, instead of trying to recruit a cadre of new leaders to fill gender quotas in your organization, train your own people to become those leaders. Find those women and men who have a strong sense of character, emotional intelligence to match their smarts, and exhibit a decent smattering of humility. Encourage them as they learn to remain true to themselves – to be authentic to what they believe, to do what they say they will do, to collaborate with others, to listen and to be transparent.

If you focus on character and culture, rather than gender, chances are your organization will find its leadership not only diverse, but strong and effective. If more companies would take that approach, we’ll eventually find that we’ll no longer need to debate the respective merits of male and female leadership styles.

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