Editor’s note: This column is from one of the participants in the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs, which is being held virtually this year. It runs from Tuesday through Friday. For details, go to worldaffairsconference.org.
In 1513, an Italian diplomat named Niccolò Machiavelli wrote a book, “The Prince,” that has long been blamed for encouraging the worst in political leaders: ruthlessness, mendacity, blackmail, betrayal. The word “Machiavellian” is not a compliment.
Nor is it entirely apt. Machiavelli’s real message was that leaders should serve the best interests of the people and work hard to maintain their support. Probity is fine, he wrote, but the important thing is to govern effectively.
That, more or less, is the standard by which leaders are measured today. We are willing to overlook their flaws — Winston Churchill’s drinking, John F. Kennedy’s womanizing, Donald Trump’s … Trumpishness — if we like their job performance.
The problem with that approach, however, is knowing what that performance will be before it’s too late. Herbert Hoover came into office with a solid record of accomplishment, but the Great Depression found him clueless and ineffectual. Harry S. Truman, by contrast, arrived with low expectations and left with generally high marks.
The problem is how to tell in advance which habits and skill sets make for a great leader, whether in government or in business. Political scientists, management experts and motivational speakers have long been addressing that question, without consensus.
I have a suggestion: Hire a woman.
Some of the most successful political leaders in the world today are female: Germany’s Angela Merkel, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, Norway’s Erna Solberg, Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-Wen, the International Monetary Fund’s Christine Lagarde, who served until late 2019 and was replaced by another woman, Kristalina Georgieva, from Bulgaria.
Merkel, for instance, has been described as the de facto leader of the European Union and the most powerful woman in the world. Ardern’s forceful response to the current pandemic has turned New Zealand into a prosperous, nearly COVID-free paradise.
In the business world, several studies have shown that companies run by women, though still in the minority, usually outperform those headed by men. A 2016 report from the investment firm Credit Suisse, for example, found that firms with a higher proportion of women in top roles generated better returns on shareholders’ equity and had stronger balance sheets.
A new survey, published in the “Harvard Business Review,” discovered that women executives are generally rated as more effective by their department heads than male counterparts are. Also that women are judged to have done significantly better at guiding their companies through the COVID-19 crisis.
Indeed, women are often brought in to rescue companies in trouble. General Motors handed Mary Barra the keys in 2014 after a faulty ignition problem caused 3 million vehicle recalls. (Still in charge, she boldly announced last month that GM would make only electric cars by 2035.) Jane Fraser recently became chief executive of Citibank after it was fined $400 million for what regulators called “unsafe and unsound banking practices.”
What exactly do women leaders do better? In the new Harvard study, they scored higher than men on traits such as motivating, communicating and fostering teamwork — the “soft,” personal skills traditionally associated with women. But female bosses did even better on those “hard,” tough-guy attributes like decision-making and initiative-taking.
The reason, some experts say, is that men tend to view their careers “vertically,” as single-minded climbs to the top. Women, by contrast, take a broader, “horizontal” approach — building relationships outside the office and taking career detours into unrelated fields. In fact, those side trips tend to help women become nimble and creative decision-makers.
I can confirm those findings. In my long career in the publishing industry, I had a number of female bosses. Each one was superior in all major categories — soft and hard, vertical and horizontal — plus one more: empathy. My male superiors mostly expected me to do my job and stay out of their way. So did the women, though without the usual macho posturing. In addition, they acted as if I had feelings, ambitions, suggestions and, mercifully, a life outside the office.
That life included the usual kids and mortgages, as well as a working spouse. With my female bosses, it was easier to balance those complications while doing my job.
Before we retired, my wife and I both became bosses. From me, she learned public speaking and copy editing. From her, I learned how to listen, collaborate — and lead.
Our underlings, many of them gone to greatness as bosses themselves, still send us messages of thanks and occasional freelance projects. One of these ex-colleagues just flew 1,000 miles to buy us lunch. A woman, of course. Machiavelli would be pleased.
Don Morrison, a former editor at Time Magazine, is a podcaster and syndicated newspaper columnist.