Hard with a heart

Human Resources COVID-19

Countries with female prime ministers turn out to be successful in their battle against the coronavirus.

Business magazine Forbes recently listed them. Taiwan, Iceland, Germany, Finland, Denmark, and New Zealand. In these countries, the number of COVID-19 deaths has been remarkably low, the pressure on the healthcare system was kept under control and the countries managed to quickly move to an exit strategy. When commenting on (un)successful leadership, all too often we focus on the leadership style (that agrees with us or not). “Macron has an authentic leadership style” or “Wilmes does not display inspiring leadership.”  The perception of successful leadership is more about the dominant, popular image of leadership instead of real effectiveness. We are oblivious to the impact that is eventually achieved. But should that not be what leadership is all about? If, like Forbes, we look at the effectiveness, what strikes most is that female prime ministers have predominantly shown strong leadership.

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Are women better leaders than men?

Who knows? A meta-analysis[1] of 140 studies revealed that organizations with more female leaders obtain better financial results. We are not sure yet whether this is because women are better leaders. What we do know, is that the average man and woman are different when it comes to certain leadership styles and features.

Research[2] shows that men are more extrovert and emotionally stable. When something goes wrong, men are particularly good at detecting and correcting errors and issues. Women are more altruistic and conscientious. Their ego is subordinate to their will to cooperate. In their leadership, they focus more on development and mentoring, and they have a better eye for the individuals needs of others.

Interestingly enough, these differences between men and women are minimal if we only consider top managers. The currently preferred leadership style values decisiveness, assertiveness and competitiveness. These features are usually attributed to men. Women who want to get to the top assimilate that leadership style. So not gender, but the expectations of the leadership role turn out to be the determining factor[3].

Female prime ministers combine male and female characteristics

Apparently, such an assimilation is not prevalent in female prime ministers. They acted resolutely. They saw the problem, started testing massively and put their country under a bell jar. Traditionally, such decisiveness is part of a male leadership style. However, the female prime ministers also pay plenty of attention to the suffering of their people. They show their vulnerability. Angela Merkel talks in a matter-of-fact manner about the dangers of coming out of lockdown too early, but simultaneously clearly indicates that her policies are like walking a tightrope, because nobody can predict when the virus will strike again. The Norwegian prime minister Erna Solberg set up a press conference only for children because she knew they were frightened. Prime minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, who quickly put her country in heavy lockdown, radiates empathy and concern. Such a focus on others is traditionally part of the female leadership style.

Will we come out of this corona crisis realizing that we need different leaders?

Can the fact that these female prime ministers are getting so much attention be indicative of a shift in the standards on good leadership? Often a paradigm shift in leadership thinking occurs when the context changes and we find that the old leadership models no longer work. The model of a strong leader who will save us all does not work in a crisis such as this one. The problems we are facing are so complex that there is not ‘one hero who knows it all’. This situation requires different parties who each take up leadership based on their own areas of expertise and competence. And yes, this shared leadership benefits from a humble and empowering leadership style – mainly female traits – because it is the only way to provide ample space for all parties to take up leadership. However, shared leadership also requires a charismatic and directing leadership – predominantly male features – to communicate a clear vision of the future, in which individual leadership can be accepted.

Can Wilmes be the leader we need?

She is accused of being uninspiring. She does not bring a story that appeals to the population in these difficult circumstances. But if we merely focus on that aspect, we perpetuate the leadership image that mainly puts male characteristics in the picture, the visionary side of leadership. Maybe she succeeds in orchestrating good teamwork between all parties behind the scenes, like Herman Van Rompuy did. At least she is giving every minister and expert involved the opportunity to take up their role as a leader. While the idea of shared leadership is in conflict with the idea that this crisis calls for a visionary leader (who is the only one to speak to the population – look at Rutte or Macron),  the strength comes from the interaction between these two styles. Visionary and decisive leadership can unite people around collective goals. Connecting and empowering leadership means letting go, which we need because one leader cannot do it all by him/herself.

Maybe this corona crisis will teach us that the best leader uses a mix of male and female styles. This would mean that in the future women can climb to the top as easily as men: both will have to combine styles based on what the context requires.


[1] Post, C. & Byron, K. (2015). Women on boards and firm financial performance. Academy of Management Journal, 58 (5), 1546 – 1571.

[2] Eagly, A.H., Johannesen-Schmidt, M.C. & van Engen, M.L. (2003). Transformational, transactional and laissez-Faire leadership Styles: A meta-analysis comparing women and men. Psychological Bulletin; Wille, B., Wiernik, B.M., Vergauwe, J., Vrijdags, A. & Trbovic, N. (2018). Personality characteristics of male and female executives: Dinstinct pathways to success? Journal of Vocational Behavior, 106, 220-235.

[3] Wille, B., Wiernik, B.M., Vergauwe, J., Vrijdags, A. & Trbovic, N. (2018). Personality characteristics of male and female executives: Dinstinct pathways to success? Journal of Vocational Behavior, 106, 220-235.

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Do you want to contact the author Karen Wouters? Or do you have a question? Let her know via Karen.Wouters@ams.ac.be.

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