05/08/2013 12:47 pm ET Updated Jul 08, 2013

Hey Fellas, Lean Back

It turns out that straight talk about gender can still strike a nerve. Fifty years after Betty Friedan's groundbreaking book, The Feminine Mystique, Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In has rightfully rekindled the fire. Sandberg has begun a national discussion of how women might find fulfillment in all areas of life - and become more effective leaders - if they allowed themselves a bit more ambition. She doesn't exactly ask women to act more like men, but critics unfairly pounced. (My friend Anna Holmes wrote a great piece in The New Yorker defending Sandberg by noting that most of her critics had not read the book!)

On this point, very few people are speaking with the support of real data. We got folks talking about the difficult topic of gender with a survey of 64,000 people around the world, where half the sample were asked which traits are "traditionally" feminine and masculine. Then we asked (without any gender prompting) of our other respondents to describe the kind of leadership they respect, and tell us how they rate men and women against these ideals. In every country, men and women offered similar evaluations, and overall they amount to an indictment of the masculine, and a yearning for the feminine. For example:

• When it comes to modern leadership, eleven skills and traits that most people label feminine including reasonable, patient, flexible, collaborative and expressive, top the charts of "most desirable", while only six masculine ones make the cut.

• More than half the people we questioned, fifty-seven percent to be exact, said, "I'm dissatisfied with the conduct of men in my country". The number was higher - seventy eight percent - among "Millennials" born after 1980.

• Sixty-six percent of adults, including sixty-three percent of men agreed that "the world would be a better place if men thought more like women."

• Seventy-eight percent said that a successful career today requires collaborating and sharing credit with others, two traits universally associated with women.

Remarkably, the results in our survey did not vary much from country to country or by gender. Almost eighty percent of Japanese men, who are stereotypically regarded as quite macho, believe the world needs men to think and act more like women. The numbers were almost as high among men in France, South Korea and Brazil. As Israel's president Shimon Peres told us during an interview in Jerusalem, people today identify men with intractable problems like climate change, poverty, and war, and they associate women with the conservation and peacemaking.

We met Peres during an eighteen-country two-year tour devoted to documenting the rise of feminine-style leadership and values among men and women in business, government, and social organizations. The shift toward the feminine is linked, we believe, to the spread of information technologies, which give people the means to organize challenged to authoritarian regimes, and a coincidental yearning for human dignity symbolized by the so-called Arab Spring. Add the globalization of the economy, especially day-to-day commerce, and you get huge numbers of well-informed people who demand honest dealing, transparency, and empathy from anyone who wants to sell them anything from a political ideal to an athletic shoe.

In Reykjavik, in a former bakery on a gritty street called Skipholt, we found Gunnar Grímsson and Robert Vidar Bjarnason "upgrading democracy for the twenty-first century," as Gunnar said, with a business that collects ideas for improving city life and allows citizens to prioritize them for action. City authorities have pledged to heed the voice of the people, expressed online, and they have made good on this promise by upgrading both school programs and services for the homeless.

Gunnar and Robert met us with cups of herbal tea and led us to a big open area furnished like a dorm room - strings of Christmas lights, a foosball table, a piano, a bar strewn with empty cups and beer bottles. They plopped down on a dilapidated sofa and explained how the recent collapse of Iceland's banking system led to a creative concept.

"It came from being freaked out," recalled Gunnar. "People were angry. They wanted the government to fall, and they wanted reforms, but after they did resign, no one knew what to do...I realized that I could participate on a different level by using the Web to help organize, rather than stand in the protests myself."

The result was a software system that allows citizens to inform elected officials of their desires and expectation before they set policies. After a successful rollout in Iceland it has been franchised in other countries. They creators sustain the enterprise through fees, but they place a higher value on their social impact. "It's a good feeling, giving people access to information, and it balances out some of the power that big business and big government can have over people," said Robert. Gunnar said, "You get better democracy by connecting the representatives to the people. And based on the way the politicians are responding, they actually seem to want to do a good job. That's not something I would have expected."

Gunnar and Robert did not devise their software with the idea of acting in a "feminine' way, but when asked they agreed that their regard for other and their desire to care for their country flows from what might be called a feminine energy. We heard a similar refrain from city planners and public officials in Medellín, Colombia, where street violence has been reduced with aggressive public improvement programs that provide high-speed transit, schools, libraries, and parks to the poor and lower middle class.

On a visit to one Medellín neighborhood called Comuna 13, city planner Carlos Escobar explained that nothing was built without extensive consultation with the families that would have to live with the results of a project. "These neighborhoods are called barrios informales because they developed without any plan--a byproduct of squatters who occupied the land and just built their own homes. Now, the city is trying to belatedly add infrastructure. To do this, the government won their support and emotional commitment of residents by involving them in the planning, design and construction stages--an inclusiveness that made the residents feel that the projects belong to them."

In Comuna 13, the improvements include paved streets, a school, and a gleaming gondola system - like those seen at major ski resorts - that eliminated the hour-long walk commuters once made just to reach a bus stop. These amenities prompted pride of ownership and, subsequently, social pressure that reduced violence. To be sure, police work was, and continues to be, essential in the struggle against violence. However Medellín's recovery from decades of murder and mayhem is also the product of what Escobar and other acknowledge as empathetic, feminine leadership.

This style is not weak, or soft, as Catalina Cock Duque, another Medellín leader, explained. As director of Foundacion Mi Sangre she has used the arts to make peace in both the city and countryside where lifelong leftist revolutionaries have begun to lay down arms and re-enter civil society. Mi Sangre uses theater to promote dialogue with the fighters and communities they terrorized. Some of these encounters can be dramatic, and even dangerous, but, as she told us, they always end with deeper understanding on all sides. Catalina's approach is definitively feminine, emphasizing empathy, hope, communication, and inclusion as she works with all parties, including those who battled in the past, to promote reconciliation. "The man is a fist," she says bluntly. "The woman is open arms."

Open arms is a good way to describe many of the enterprises, most profit making, that we discovered around the world. In Japan we met Eriko Yamaguchi, who travelled to Bangladesh for graduate school so she could learn, first hand, what developing societies need to grow. Combining her business sense with her fashion sense, she designed high-end leather goods and turned to a factory that made jute bags for rise to produce them. Trial and error and lots of cross-cultural negotiation led to success for a firm called Motherhouse that now retails handbags across Japan and is moving into China.

In Israel we encountered Yadin Kaufmann, a hardnosed, Harvard-trained investor who made one fortune backing high-tech Israeli firms and is on his way to making a second one in the Palestinian territories. Hardly a pushover, Kaufmann reasoned that computer-based businesses cannot be stymied by Israeli border controls. With his help, Palestinian firms are creating jobs and generating economic activity that makes for peace and stability.

Dozens more examples can be found in our book The Athena Doctrine, How Women (And Men Who Can Think Like Them) Will Rule the Future. From informal finance schemes in Africa to housing development in India and profitable social enterprises in San Francisco, all depend on the positive traits, skills, and virtues traditionally associated with women. However, as everyone knows, males and females alike contain a multitude of traits. We each fall somewhere on the masculine-to-feminine continuum, and every one of us has the potential to develop the qualities essential to success.

For women, Sandberg's message of "lean in" is a strong thought for many to follow. Yet there is also a burgeoning movement of innovative men and women who are deploying feminine values as competitive advantage. To men, we would advise them to step back, to allow for listening, reflecting, and subtler creativity. In other words, "Hey fellas, lean back." You've got to change too.

John Gerzema and Michael D'Antonio are authors of New York Times Best Seller, The Athena Doctrine: How Women (And the Men Who Think Like Them) Will Rule The Future (Jossey-Bass, April 2013). All profits from the book support the UN Foundations Girl Up Program @johngerzema