Archbishop Desmond Tutu is quoted as saying if he had one wish to change the world, he would have more women leaders. At Davos this year, joking that he may need security to escort him offstage, he suggested, "What we need is a revolution led by women. I think women ought to be saying to us men: 'You have made a mess, just get out and let us in.'"
While radical revolution was not on the agenda at the World Economic Forum's Women Leaders Dinner, the question of leadership for the messy world was. As posited by moderator Laura Liswood, Secretary-General CWWL, in these turbulent times do we need the bold John Wayne style of leadership or do women see -- and bring -- something different?
The conversation was taken up to a refreshingly higher level than the stale 'what will it take for women to be leaders,' or 'how are women better or different leaders than men?' Instead, the question we lived in was 'what kind of leadership is demanded in these challenging times?'
It is the right question to ask. As large swaths of the world lurched from one crisis to another through the last five years, our paradigms of leadership have been challenged. At Davos last year and again this year, people groused that our current political leaders do not seem fit to lead and that global corporations are often filling the vacuum of political leadership. One participant put it bluntly, "people are scared; they have forgotten how to lead."
The women leaders assembled agreed that this environment calls for 'an era of hybrid leadership.' As Michelle Bachelet, UN Women Executive Director and former Chilean president, said, "We can't generalize. For good leadership in changing times, one day they need to be the general, the next the consensus-builder." Her comments were echoed by Josette Sheeran, UN World Food Program Executive Director and new board member of the World Economic Forum, "Today's leadership still needs to be hierarchical but also needs to be flexible."
If the leadership establishment is equated with inflexibility or in many cases, immobility, we need leaders -- especially women -- who can offer flexibility of thought, facilitate creative new solutions in a fast-changing world, rally resources and think in new ways. And I agree with those who feel our perpetually shifting environment calls for leadership that is more decisive and crisis-oriented than slow and consensual. As Diezani Alison-Madueke, Nigeria's Minister of Petroleum Resources, said, "We need [leaders] to have thick skin."
I have rarely sat through a discussion of women's leadership where the conversation did not drift to 'masculine v. feminine' leadership styles. Although that dissection still surfaced plenty at Davos, many felt this framing is passé. As summed up nicely by Valerie Germain, Heidrick & Struggles Managing Partner, Head of Strategy and Business Development, "the discussion of male versus female leadership traits is stopping progress. There is a style of leadership that is needed: flexibility." UN Undersecretary-General Bachelet said, "We don't believe we need to make a trade off between being feminine and tough. Women are of course capable of strong and tough decisions."
In this vein, some women argued that equating leadership to people in positions of authority was also passé, that the true definition of leadership is mobilizing and facilitating various resources toward progress. As posited by a member of the Forum's 'Global Shapers Community,' we often keep individualizing leadership but leadership does not happen without teams. The ability to lead from within or outside a hierarchical structure is more possible and more critical given the current technologies and global culture shifts toward the importance of civil engagement.
Through this leadership lens, our workplace gender equality metrics and measurements are incomplete when we focus on how many women are (or are not) in the C-suite or board seats. If we really buy into this concept that 'leaders are people mobilizing resources,' not just those with powerful titles, then perhaps we have more women leading then we currently measure.
The ability of leaders to mobilize resources takes an ability to synthesize which in turn takes an ability to listen and to be inclusive, all characteristics identified as essential for the current contexts. Valerie Germain argues that the kind of diversity that is most critically needed is 'diversity of thought.' "The strategic priorities at Davos reflected what we're hearing from our clients globally. The theme is the next generation of talent and how we continue to pursue a more diverse workforce. Getting to optimal solutions requires the right mix of diverse perspectives and most [corporations] are currently far from equilibrium. Gender is part of that diversity of thought and experiences -- the future state of the world is going to built on new perspectives, skills."
The Davos discussion on women's leadership was eloquently stitched up by Beth Brooke, Ernst & Young Global Vice-Chair, Public Policy: "We need to focus on what we can do collectively, but also individually. Do women leaders exercise the power we have?" One of the Forum's Young Global Leaders, Mina Guli, founder of Peony Capital and CEO of Thirst, argued eloquently for not neglecting the steps women can take immediately and personally. "I'm so focused on action right now launching a global movement on water conservation and doing it from China. So it's fine to talk about the esoteric nature of leadership, but individually we need to look now at how we can be the best leaders we can be. Are you the best you can be, and if not, why not? We should focus on strengthening our strengths, mitigating weaknesses." I completely concur with Beth and Mina. There is still plenty of need to focus on removing systemic and cultural blockages that prevent diversity of thought (including gender equality) in organizations and politics. But individually, when we spend time looking at barriers around us in our workplace or society, barriers is what we will see -- and if 'seeing is believing,' focusing on barriers often limits our personal vision of what we can achieve.
One of the Davos sessions asked the question, 'Do women have a vision?' For our vision of a better world, we should have a vision for diversity of thought in organizations and politics. We should have a vision for leaders who can listen, synthesize and then act decisively. And as those leaders in action now, we should have a vision of ourselves continuously improving our own abilities to be the best change agents we can be.
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