Who should we choose to lead ourselves?

By Tuire Niemi

You may have noticed that there is a contradiction in the above headline. You seldom ever get to choose your boss!

In most of the countries you have a vote to choose your parliament and president so you have a say but that is only a good start in your way to influence who is steering and developing the society, your life and future. However, you cannot change your boss, but you can change your job and get a new boss. Leadership in a society as well as in organisations is one of the most decisive factors for success. This is common sense. In Finland we have recently discussed a lot about the elderly care and mishaps and poor quality of care in several care homes. The finger has pointed, among other things, to poor management in running these care homes.

It is a fact that poor leadership can cost an organisation dearly – there is a proven relation between the profitability of the company and the quality of the leadership. Bad leadership will push good people to change jobs. We also know that young people are even more careful when choosing a job. They exam the values of the employer and how the organisation is run. An organisation’s culture is important and derives from leadership and management. The employer’s image is much more important now for recruitment as transparency increases.

What can be done to improve leadership? Leadership is not static but develops with changes in society – the changing business environment, evolving organisations and new ways of working challenge and question the old ways of leadership.

Based on research we can easily seize opportunities for developing the leadership and the organisations’ culture. Finland has achieved a more equal society than many other countries. We should not rest on our laurels but seek to take full advantage of the potential we have in unused resource and skill pools.

Researchers have found that women tend to have a distinct leadership style that shapes how they run their teams. Specifically, these studies show that women tend to use what’s called the transformational leadership style.Transformational leaders aim to enhance the motivation, morale and job performance of followers by working with teams to identify needed changes, to create a shared vision and to guide through inspiration.

The opposite of transformational leadership is transactional leadership – you see the boss sitting in his or her office giving orders and receiving progress updates from his or her employees, but rarely engages with them on a personal level.

Setting and achieving goals is of the utmost importance for business success. However, transformational leaders are said to see employee development as a side-door to achieving goals. Female managers are often seen to attain goals by transforming their teams into better people. For women power enables leadership and is a way to achieve goals. For men power is a motivating factor and is a means to direct action. It is said that women generally see power as a communal matter, whereas for men it is much more a personal matter. Also, we communicate in a different way.

We have heard statements like: ”we would like to have women in our board, but we have not found any good candidates.”How does this sound to you? The explanation given is often that there are still too few women in CEO positions and heading business units, which positions are said to given the right type of experience for board positions.

You have heard several times explanations for preventing women from accessing the ranks of power – “women are not capable”, “they are not interested, or they are unable to break the glass-ceiling” .But is this the big picture?

This is asked by Thomas Chamorro-Premuzic, an organizational psychologist, who works mostly in the areas of personality profiling, people analytics, and leadership development. He gives an interesting perspective on women’s opportunities reaching the highest ranks. It is often said that women need more self-confidence, and that no one is expected to be perfect. Men are not demanding as much of themselves and trust that they’ll succeed. Perhaps, it would be better to say that women are less likely to overrate themselves.

Chamorro-Premuzic notes thatthe main reason for the uneven management sex ratio is our inability to discern between confidence and competence. We often misinterpret displays of confidence as a sign of competence and are fooled into believing that men are better leaders than women. As he puts it, when it comes to leadership, the only advantage that men have over women is the fact that manifestations of hubris — often masked as charisma or charm — are commonly mistaken for leadership potential, and that these occur much more frequently in men than in women.

According to Chamorro-Premuzic this is consistent with the finding that leaderless groups have a natural tendency to elect self-centred, overconfident and narcissistic individuals as leaders, and that these personality characteristics are not equally common in men and women. Does this sound familiar to you?

I just had a discussion with a well-connected, cosmopolitan young male serial entrepreneur about the composition of boards and top managements, and what type of persons seem to achieve these roles. He brought up this issue himself after having observed the predominance of the male networks in top positions, and, he continued, there is moreover a tendency for male leaders to align with similar good fellows that form homogenous teams and boards.

As Chamorro-Premuzic writes in his book; “traits like overconfidence and self-absorption should be seen as red flags”, but usually, he continues;“They prompt us to say: Ah, there’s a charismatic fellow! He’s probably leadership material”

Diversity is on everybody’s lips, so we need to get better at it. Diversity should be a core value in organisations. There is of course more to it than only a better gender balance in leaders and managers. We need to be very much aware of the benefits of a diversified educational and social background, experience and skills, personal characteristics, culture, age and ethnicity when recruiting leaders and nominating boards.

Many of us already have a good idea of what skills our leaders need in an ever-evolving world of business and workplace trends. The pace of work, innovation and change will accelerate. That requires more leadership skill to listen to stay ahead on what is happening on the market, with their people, clients and partners. Empathy and compassion are crucial at bringing people together in mutual understanding around different complex issues. Leaders need to know how to encourage, but also diffuse fears. They need to be trustworthy, open and real, authentic, and able to build trust in teams and companies. Leaders need to get better at leading their teams through change and leverage people’s creativity. It is not news that women are generally better with emotional intelligence, empathy, altruism, self-awareness and humility and there is demand for all of those qualities.

We should embrace diversity in earnest and put to use all the versatile skills that women have by increasing the leadership participation of women. This will increase the potential from our organisations. I am confident that the younger generations are in to this but we cannot afford to sit on our hands and wait for them to take over on all fronts. There is plenty of evidence that success could be built with more women in senior positions if we really want to get the best out of our businesses and societies.

Tuire Niemi is CEO and Founder of TiN Advisory Oy, and is working as an independent senior advisor and professional board member on strategy, management, financial and legal matters. She has a long and versatile experience from senior positions in banking and financial markets.

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