Could women be more effective leaders than men over 40?

For many years it has been clear that the number of female senior leaders in the organisational world, both public and private sector has been disproportionately low compared to men. There are many factors that drive this from talent identification and promotion often favouring men due to the criteria adopted, a lack of female candidates due to the educational system tending to promote certain sectors or roles as being more appropriate for women and simple self selection by women reflecting where they prefer to work. Steps are being taken to address all these but there is still a lingering, yet false, assumption amongst some that men make better leaders than women.

Societal change has driven the transformation of our organisations to become places where command and control is no longer way to optimise performance. Organisational success in general terms is now more likely to be delivered by a consultative and relationship focused approach which based on employee engagement which ensures employees genuinely care about the outcome rather than just do the job.

There is strong evidence that this approach more closely fits the natural style which women adopt rather than the more overtly competitive approach taken by many men. That’s not to say men are not able to be consultative and relationship focused its merely that as a group fewer of them seem effective in the approach than women. At its heart it’s about good leadership which inspires and engages people to give their best whether it’s delivered by men or women. Good leadership is good leadership.

Research by Zenger & Folkman from 2011 and updated in 2019 clearly shows that women are more effective most of the top competencies of good leadership than men, from taking initiative to driving for results and inspiring and motivating others to building relationships.  For full study.

But very interestingly these differentials are not constant. Everyone changes over their careers and develops capability. Here additional analysis is even more revealing, and perhaps challenging for men. By looking at the ages of those in the study its possible to track the differences between men and women in terms of their leadership capability at different stages in their career.

At the start of careers around 20 both men and women have the same level of leadership effectiveness, however by about 25 men were more effective than their female colleagues, but from that point on women develop and catch up, and by age 40 they on par with men. After that they become increasingly more effective than men to a peak of around 9% more effective at 60 from where on the differential then declines.

From my 35 years of career experience in the military, business and Government much of it identifying and developing leaders, especially strategic leaders, this pattern is reflective in what I have seen. Young men strongly pushing ahead in their careers initially and, in general, women taking more time to quietly build their capability and often confidence. At about 40 this experience and confidence has got to the level where it can be used as effectively as men use theirs. When women add their natural emotional intelligence, at this stage lacking in many men, they have a winning combination which accelerates them ahead. However it’s not all downhill for men, as the gap closes again after 60, by which time many men have learnt the lessons and worked out the secret of success, that it’s more about the leader inspiring people to care and give their best not just telling them to do the job.

This dynamic is not only interesting for women to know that post 40 they are potentially more effective as leaders than men but it poses many other questions which need to be considered in order to make our leaders and thus organisations more effective. Two which clearly come to mind are how can we help women build their experience and above all confidence so they are as good as men in their 20s and then how can we help men more effectively build their self-awareness to be more relationship focused so they are as good as women from 40 to 60.

But again this is probably a dynamic that is already moving anyway as those currently at these points in their careers are going to be replaced by new generations soon who take a different view. As millennials get more senior and generation z become a large part of the workforce and take up their first management roles the ability to inspire and get people to care about outcomes so they give their best is going to become more and more important. Luckily those in junior leadership roles are likely to come from the same generation as their teams so agreement on how leadership will work best is likely.

As always it is the gap between the perspectives of senior leaders and others where the generational gaps will be largest and the risk of misalignment in effective leadership approach greatest. But the moral for senior male leaders between 40 and 60 seems to be maybe, just maybe, your female colleagues could be an example to watch counter to the now discredited myth that men are better leaders than women.

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