Early on in the coronavirus pandemic it became apparent that countries led by women tended to handle the crisis better, but it wasn’t necessarily clear why.
After all, there aren’t that many countries with female leaders (19), and there are all sorts of other cultural, socio-economic and geographic factors that could influence Covid cases and deaths.
A recent study by academics from the Universities of Liverpool and Reading sought to clarify whether female leadership styles played a role. They found that, indeed, women-led nations had significantly fewer deaths (around 1,650 fewer on average) and cases than their closest similarly-sized neighbours.
The pattern of better health outcomes was still there even after controlling for health expenditure, and factoring out possible outliers like New Zealand (led by Jacinda Ardern) and Germany (led by Angela Merkel), in part because women PMs and presidents were generally quicker to lock down.
It would be a mistake just to draw the conclusion from this that ‘women are better leaders’ per se – leadership is individual, contextual and crucially can be learned – but it is telling to look at the behaviours that proved so effective.
For example, female leaders tend to be more sensitive to risk and to communicate in a more egalitarian way, a point highlighted by UCL professor of organisational behaviour Sunny Lee.
In a pre-pandemic analysis of nearly 9,000 leadership reviews US leadership consultancy Zenger/Folkman found that when rated by their direct reports, women outscored men on 17 of 19 leadership capabilities, significantly so when it came to relationship building, practising self-development, developing others and displaying integrity. There was less divergence on technical capabilities, strategic perspective or the frequency and power of communication. (When the study was repeated during the coronavirus pandemic women leaders outscored men on 13 of the 19 competencies.)
The critical leadership trait here is empathy, which increases awareness of the consequences of your own actions, your ability to build relationships with others, and indeed your willingness to put human beings ahead of hard economics. And it’s something all leaders would do well to cultivate.
“Countries that have handled this crisis better were ultra cautious, which led them to take big decisions early. They have usually been led by women,” says Rene Carayol, an executive coach and author. “But it’s not about gender, it’s about empathy. It’s the ability to feel the mood music.”
Being able to relate to the emotions of others and control your own is important not just in showing people that you care about them, but also to earn their trust and bring them along with you.
This is no more apparent than when we look at the bravado demonstrated by Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Britain’s Boris Johnson and America’s Donald Trump – all of whom at one stage or another refused to acknowledge the real threat of the virus (and therefore the risk to their people), or later to admit that they were wrong.
All three countries have significantly high death rates, and all three would have benefitted from a little more empathy, and a little more humility. Fortunately, for leaders in politics or business, men or women, these are things that can be learned.
Image credit: Pool / Pool via Getty Images. German Chancellor Angela Merkel