Jill Abramson, the first female Executive Editor of the New York Times, was unceremoniously dumped last week after less than three years on the job. The rumor mill alleges that she suffered from an acute case of "b*tchiness," which seems to be particularly virulent among modern women executives who think good leadership is defined by brusqueness, roughness and surliness. As Pete Seeger lamented in "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" back in the '60s, we have to wonder, When will they ever learn?"
Female executives are generally acknowledged to be victims of the "double bind"; if they act too feminine, then they're not taken seriously, but if they act too masculine, then they're universally hated by both the men and women who work under them. But women don't have to be victims of anything, be it gender stereotypes or societal expectations, if they would just stop being something they're not and utilize their own "feminine" qualities with a lot more frequency.
A well-known Stanford School of Business study of 132 graduates over eight years concluded that women with so-called masculine traits (e.g., aggressiveness and confidence) who were able to turn on and off those traits per a particular situation were three times more likely to get promoted than "masculine" women who didn't self-monitor their behavior. They were also more successful than masculine men, whether or not those men also self-monitored, as well as "feminine" men (who tried to be less aggressive or confident in order to seem more like women).
In another study by John Gerzema, author of The Athena Doctrine, 64,000 people in 134 different countries were asked to characterize the top traits of a leader, male or female. The most common leadership qualities they expressed were those that are typically seen as feminine: being authentic, transparent, collaborative and communicative. And a full 66% felt that the world would be a better place if men thought more like women.
The take-away? While assertiveness and self-esteem are necessary leadership traits, they don't exist in a vacuum, and female leaders would appear to have a distinct advantage over men when they use those qualities discriminantly, balanced with their more natural "feminine" inclinations toward the traits mentioned above. Yes, you have to show confidence and assertiveness, but tempered with empathy and generosity.
In other words, "act like a man, think like a woman."
Which brings us back to Ms. Abramson. Her rough edges were certainly apparent to most. Her boss, NY Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, told staff in a memo that his decision was based on "concerns I had about aspects of Jill's management of our newsroom." Her daughter has tweeted about her mother being intimidating and not a hugger, but "a rock star for ambitious women." More significantly, during her term, the newsroom has seen an exodus of high-level staffers escaping her control for less-exalted, but perhaps less-fractious pastures, such as CNN, ABC News and Yahoo! News. Maybe there was a little too much "acting like a man" and not enough "thinking like a woman."
Meanwhile, her successor, former Managing Editor Dean Baquet, seems to be universally liked and respected by his peers. By all accounts, he embodies the right balance of masculine confidence softened by a "feminine" side of flexibility and inclusiveness. One former NY Times staffer even commented, "Dean was beloved in the newsroom. When he was editor of the Los Angeles Times, people were quitting the (NY) Times to go work for him."
So while modern female executives like Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg and Yahoo's Marissa Meyer make headlines with exhortations to "lean in" or demands that staff work on-site rather than telecommute, perhaps it's time for a more balanced, softer approach by female managers. "There's no crying in baseball" is still a good rule to follow, but there can certainly be a lot more pats on the back and admissions of vulnerability without appearing like a softie.
We might never know the exact reasons for Abramson's firing, but we do know instinctively what does and doesn't work for successful leaders. Strong and confident are good; kind and empathetic are better. Abramson seems to have been channeling The Daily Planet's Perry White in her brusque newsroom relationships, but she might have been better off thinking a bit more like Lois Lane.