Leadership Knows No Gender

 We have spent much time analyzing leaders from all walks of life on our Leadership Platform. While it is risky to generalize, women seem to have a greater predisposition than men to be sensitive to the needs of others, and to foster nurturing environments because of their socialisation. Not that men can’t be that way too, but women are generally more aware of the communal world around them, and the importance of understanding and valuing people’s emotions.

Ironically, while women have paid the price for their “caring responsibilities” which often means they have less time for networking out of office hours – and thus less time for the everyday bonding activities that are so much a part of the “old boys network” – it seems that the ability to nurture, to foster co-operation, and to integrate the aspirations of others, may in many ways be placing women in a position of natural advantage when it comes to everyday leadership in the 21st century.

Organizations today have changed; the days of treating employees disrespectfully or unfairly and expecting them to stay or simply accept are disappearing fast. Collaboration is fundamental to making things work, with the ultimate aim of bringing about profitable movement, which does at times necessitate tough calls and action, especially during difficult times. As a result, leaders need to acquire the skill of balancing two critical fundamentals:

  1. Understand what motivates people and gives meaning to their work and ultimately their lives, and
  2. Understand the needs of the organization, which includes all-round pressure to move it profitably (successfully).

Unlike the first fundamental that seems to come fairly naturally to most women leaders, the latter can be more challenging as many variables impact directly on being able to achieve this – numerous organizational dynamics, sociopolitical and economic factors, being appointed from the outside (fairly common phenomena as organizations compete to secure top women leaders), societal and personal prejudices and expectations, and much more. Some commentators question the ability of women leaders at the top to achieve fundamental two and list as examples Cynthia Carroll (Anglo American), Maria Ramos (ABSA) and Nonkululeko Nyembezi-Heita (ArcelorMittal). But perhaps referring to these individuals as examples of struggling leaders could be viewed as premature, considering the persistent and even unprecedented difficult global conditions all leaders currently face, resulting in many male leaders also struggling. We need much more time and objective analysis to make credible judgments.

The big question is whether or not the intense and increasing involvement of women in the ‘tough’ corporate and political environment will enhance or erode these natural qualities that at present seem to give them a leadership advantage, as far as fundamental one is concerned, especially in extraordinary times amidst increasing pressure to perform according to shareholder and market expectations. Time and history will tell.

The following are some comments and extracts from conversations with women leaders:

Grace Harding – Company Leader at Ocean Basket

We interviewed Grace on CliffCentral.com – Listen HereGrace Harding

Helen Zille – Former Leader of the Democratic Alliance

In a nutshell I could summarize Zille as someone that was raised and almost programmed to act on a sense of justice, doing what’s right; who wants to, has to, and feel’s compelled to make the world a better place, driving towards solutions that improve people’s plight.

While preparing for a conversation with her by engaging people that know her, an attribute that stood out very clearly was that of empathy. She feels for people and the conditions under which they suffer. This empathy seems to drive her to action; almost triggers something inside her that she herself can’t control. She moves into gear, like a robot on a mission, to create movement, change, and improvement! Energy comes from somewhere inside her and she bites into the problem like a bull dog that does not let go. I am even willing to stick my neck out and state that ‘winning votes’ hardly crosses her mind when she is in this mode, if this is at all possible for a politician.

Zille believes that “diagnosing a problem is the key to solving it”. One cannot find the desired solution when the problem was diagnosed incorrectly in the first place. She believes many people make this mistake and it often is the “fundamental mistake that is made in policy formulation in SA and also in interventions. People define the problem incorrectly and then, like the age old example of a doctor that does a heart transplant instead of taking out the appendix, they implement the wrong solution”. She further believes that when one diagnoses a problem, especially when it is a big one, the next step is to break it up into smaller components that can be solved.

Talking about her leadership style Zille said “the issue is not having one style but having good enough judgment to know what is appropriate in different situations. That is the key test of a leader – to have the discretion and the judgement to know what is appropriate in complex situations and move forward to a new level. This can only be developed over time and with experience and with good capacity to reflect on your mistakes – to understand what went wrong and why, and then to be able to draw on that experience in the next situation.”

Gill Marcus – Former Governor Reserve Bank

“When you are exercising your role or responsibility you have to take more into account.” This ‘more’ to Marcus is ‘the greater good’. So, as a leader it is not only about what is right for you but what is right for the greater good. Marcus explains further: “It (the role) can’t be against your values, but it’s not about yourself and when you are exercising judgment it is about the greater good.”

According to Marcus this mindset lifts the leader on to another level where, “it is not about how I feel today; this is secondary. I could be feeling totally lousy today but if this is what I have to do then this is what must be done.”

It seems that it is therefore about understanding yourself, the greater good and then the ‘office’ or position that is thrust upon you. She says: “The question is to draw the distinction between what is the authority of the office and what is your personal authority, because office has huge authority.” Marcus believes the leaders personal conduct can add to the office or detract from it, and “your best combination is when you can combine your personal leadership and authority with the authority of the office, because then you can use that combination to effectively achieve what needs to be done”.

Dawn Nathan-Jones – CEO Europe Car Rental   Dawn Nathan-Jones

Everybody has a hierarchy of values, which are unique to them or in other words, what makes them tick. It is important to take the time to learn what those values are and communicate within those values because people need to feel they are not just working for a pay check.  People’s jobs need to be aligned to their value system so they actually feel that they are working for the betterment of themselves and not just for the company.”

Wendy Luhabe Wendy Luhabe

I am suggesting to leaders out there that this is not a time to abdicate responsibility to government. We ourselves must exercise responsible leadership in our respective spheres of influence. We must become architects of strategies and policies to manage risks, issues and opportunities.  We must build human capacities to generate opportunities and to manage problems.” 

Thoko Mokgosi – Former CEO HP South Africa

“Focus on winning the war, but understand that you lose some battles in the process. But, ensure that those battles you lose are not the strategic ones. It is okay to allow yourself to lose here and there. Don’t get hung up on winning everything. Focus on ensuring that you win that war. Whatever your objective is stay focused on that.”

Monhla Hlahla – Former CEO Airports Company South Africa (ACSA)

During her leadership career at this very challenging State Owned Enterprise, she has learned some valuable principles that can assist every leader to lead more effectively:

  1. Keep focusing on the core purpose of the organization and its goal. When the difficult times arrive and counsel comes from all angles one can listen sincerely and then make a decision that is good for the organization and its purpose.
  2. The ability and humility to hear all views.
  3. Decisiveness is critical. Sometimes a situation needs someone to just make a call rather than someone to necessarily make the right call. What becomes more important then is one’s ability to manage unintended consequences.
  4. Guts or courage.

Natalie du Toit – Swimmer and Olympic medal winner

What drives her is more than swimming. Was what happened to Du Toit at the age of 17 really a setback? Ironically, I don’t think so! It was an experience that put her on a more visible platform from which to inspire the entire world! She won the ‘Open Water Award’ for bravery during the 2008 Olympics, even though she came 16th? Who do people look at when swimmers line up to start a race? For whom do people rise to their feet and cheer while swimming? The answer to each question is Du Toit.

So, perhaps the so called setback was a blessing; a defining moment after which not only one major choice but several smaller choices led to something greater.

Interviewing Du Toit reminded me that each of us can ask ourselves this question, when an experience like being retrenched, or having to close a business, or losing a loved one, or going through a difficult divorce, or not achieving important objectives, feels like a setback: “One day when I/we look back at this experience will I/we want to see it as a) a setback or b) a defining moment that flung me/us on to another platform that led to something greater?”

If you or your teams choice is ‘b’ then ‘be’ brave and plan the way forward, then take step one, step two, step three…As you do this your belief levels will grow and so will your confidence.

Mardia van der Walt-Korsten – Former Leader for T-Systems Africa

Her accolades did not come easy, as one mostly finds with successful people. Several times in her life and career she had to act in positions for some time before being formally appointed, which is not an easy thing to do.  Looking back, she believes those episodes were part of her personal training as a leader – learning to confront issues that stand in ones way of progressing and asking for what one deserves. 

She cites some key reasons for the success as listening; dealing with politics, which can kill a company; and surrounding her with the right people, some of them needing to be good ‘sparring partners’.

Patricia de Lille – Mayor Cape Town

She claims to be the first woman in South Africa’s history to start a political party, contest in an election and even win seats in Parliament, which was a conscious goal she set for herself.  Patricia de Lille

What really attracted me to the ‘down to earth’ De Lille was her deep passion for South Africa, which drives her to get up every morning. She says “I will not allow anyone to mess up my country!” South Africans have come to know her as someone that is always out there fighting all sorts of social, political, legal and other battles.

She believes it is easy to be a leader. Just make a distinction between what is wrong and what is right, and then speak up about what is wrong. When you speak up you give leadership to that specific topic. She also strongly believes in the two values of communication and speaking the truth. In her view communication, which simply includes talking to one another is what to a large extent got South Africa out of deep trouble. She adds: “It is so much easier to speak truth all the time… I speak the truth; I am honest… even when I get home at night and I feel there is a bit of tension I invite discussion about it…”

Terry Volkwyn – CEO Primedia Broadcasting and the woman behind LeadSA

When I interviewed her it seemed clear she arrived in a leadership space that I call “leading beyond”. In other words, she demonstrates leadership beyond the boundaries for which she is held directly accountable. It requires incredible courage, maturity and faith to do this, which takes time, but is very liberating.

In essence she permitted that highly evolved leadership instinct of a “seamless attitude” – unitedly moving barriers to excellence – to mature to a point where it triggered a burning desire for her and Primedia Broadcasting to achieve even broader excellence. 

This attitude allowed her to be more in tune with the world around her and so connect with the hearts of her employees by aligning them to broader societal needs, to give them a sense of higher purpose. In this space shareholder satisfaction becomes a byproduct of something much greater.

Her mature view had to be sold to management and the board. It was challenging, but thank goodness she did not give up and her colleagues had the courage and faith to buy into it, placing them on that higher road towards maturing their own “seamless attitudes”.

Futhi Mtoba – Former President Business Unity South Africa (BUSA)

The following two factors probably played an important role in enabling her to achieve so much: 1) She likes to get involved; 2) She has an abundance of energy.

People often ask her how she manages all her activities and she struggles to answer, save to say: “I want to do it”. Five simple yet powerful words! Ever hear people say “I have to go to work now” or, “I have to call so and so” or, “I have to go to the gym now”, and so on.  Granted the use of the word ‘have’ is mostly a habit. But, imagine the difference it may make by rather saying “I want to go to work now” or, “I want to call so and so” or, “I want to go to gym now”. I got the impression that Mtoba is a ‘want to’ rather than a ‘have to’ person. Futhi Mtoba

She herself tends to enjoy following leaders that really excite her; that have clarity of mind of what they want to achieve; with a sense of ‘nothing is impossible’; a realization that you have to work for what you want and that what you want to achieve will not come easy; individuals that ignite that positive energy. When Mtoba sees such people she is behind them.

About her role as BUSA President she comments: “We need to speak with one voice around the issues that affect business. At the same time we have to be very mindful of the role that business can contribute. In other words, how do we as an organization support policies that will also assist in enterprise development, which means building more businesses in the country, to create more jobs. The environment has to be enabling.”

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Do you recognize some areas in yourself or your team that need improvement? Email Adriaan on adriaan@leadershipplatform.com for more on creating “Leadership Fit” leaders that generate successful movement (performance) inside your organisation.




Adriaan, as an accomplished author and leadership advisor, has been interviewing and working with top leaders for more than 15 years. He is the Co-Founder and CEO of Leadership Platform. (Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP)

Call: +27 (0)12 653 3022
Email: info@leadershipplatform.com

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Leadership Platform is a specialist leadership development consultancy, focusing on creating measurable impact to the bottom line through the enhancement of leadership understanding and engagement.


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