In these times of seemingly permanent crisis, good leadership is essential, and not easy to find. Most of the world’s leaders are – still – men. Increasingly, however, some of the most prominent and respected leaders are women: Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, for example, and prime ministers Jacinda Adern of New Zealand and Sanna Marin of Finland. An analysis published in the Social Science Research Network suggests that “COVID outcomes are systematically and significantly better in countries led by women …”
Is it perhaps possible that – whisper it – women make better leaders in crisis situations than men? In the second installment of our series The debate, this fascinating possibility is explored by author, speaker and social activist Dr. Auma Obama and Deutsche Post DHL Group’s Head of Global Media Relations Anita Gupta.
Based on their observations of what constitutes good leadership, they provide their viewpoint on whether women outperform men at the top when the going gets tough and immediate, far-reaching solutions are urgently needed.
Dr. Auma Obama
I have no doubt at all that women make better leaders in a crisis. No matter at what level, practically throughout our whole lives we are trained to deal with crisis. Ask, for example, any woman who is a sister, aunt, wife, mother or grandmother. Women are lifelong crisis managers. Whether it’s dealing with a 40-degree fever in the middle of the night or a fall off a bike resulting in a broken tooth or limb, nine out of 10 times it’s the woman who steps up, rushes in and saves the day, or the night, 24/7, 365 days of the year, every year.
So, armed with years of experience, it’s no wonder that we are able to step up and lead at any level in a crisis. Speed of response, clear-headed focus, multitasking, mixed with empathy: It’s all in a day’s work and part of that lifelong training.
We are socialized to nurture, to persevere as primary caregivers – and not only as mothers. Almost all girls experience this from a very early age. I remember my own childhood in Kenya, growing up as the only girl among brothers. Only I was expected to help with the cooking and the household chores, while my brothers were allowed to play – not so much at my parents’ house, but definitely at my grandmother’s. This kindled a spark of rebellion in me and turned me, at a very early age, into something of a champion for gender equity, greatly influencing my later work with children and young people, and leading to my founding the Auma Obama Foundation Sauti Kuu (Kiswahili for “Powerful Voices”). But it also made me not just a great homemaker, but the one who, when needed, could quickly jump into any difficult situation to save the day! Ask anyone in my family. So many times I heard that I should have been the firstborn son (!). It was obviously not enough to excel as a girl. My competence, although a result of my upbringing as a girl, was attributed to my being tough like a boy!? A paradox.
Today things are changing, of course, at least in many parts of the world. Globalization and internet connectivity are opening up our societies in a way that cannot but include women as critical players in the bigger scheme of things. Take Saudi Arabia, for example, where young women, or indeed women of every age, now have opportunities to stride out into the world in ways that their mothers would never have dreamed of. Or look at the many female entrepreneurs all across Africa that are taking their rightful place at the continent’s tables of power and being recognized for it. Women are proving their metal everywhere – from the household or in businesses right up to the highest levels of leadership and power – showing that they are able to handle any crisis, in any of the above-mentioned areas.
It’s my personal quest to ensure that we see more women rise, assert themselves and take their place at the table of leadership. We have the skills – and the experience! It’s time we stopped stepping back and letting the men take the lead and/or credit for achievements that we have, in equal measure, contributed to. That’s what my foundation, Sauti Kuu, is all about. It’s about making sure the girls don’t get left behind, and that the boys learn to accommodate the girls, while learning other social, emotional and technical skills. It’s about equity – being judged by the strength of your character and deeds and not by your gender; about women being given the chance to show what they are made of, and their bringing their skills and experience to the forefront. Our more recent history reflects this, showing us that women can be equally good or even better leaders than men. Not because it’s a battle of the sexes, but because it’s just a fact. For the longest time, behind every great man was a great secretary (PA) and/or a devoted wife!
Do women make better leaders in a crisis? Based on my experiences, the answer to this question is a clear yes. Women perform very well as leaders, particularly in times of crisis. In my career, I have encountered many women with excellent crisis management skills – both in business operations and in communications. Likewise, in politics, it currently appears that countries led by women have mounted a strong public health response to the coronavirus crisis – just look at New Zealand, Germany, Taiwan or Finland.
So, why might women make better leaders in a crisis? An argument that I find quite convincing is that women are more comfortable with multitasking. A crisis requires many different, high-priority elements to be managed simultaneously. The key facts, the likely impact and possible courses of action need to be established fast, with a response team structured to monitor the situation 24/7, act quickly and proactively deal with all affected stakeholders in real time.
This requires keeping a cool head, scanning all developments with 360-degree radar, and efficiently switching between the different key priorities to contain the crisis – usually under extreme pressure. In my experience, women do very well at this. But of course you can’t generalize, as there are many men who are also adept at multitasking. On the whole, however, I believe that women may have certain advantages in this regard.
If you think I’m building up to singing the praises of female leaders and making a plea for the world to be run by women … Wrong! Yes, I think there is much to be said for promoting more female leadership – in politics as well as in business. But the ability to manage crises is not the sole requirement of being a leader, and not every woman leader is a better leader than a man. What’s more, I very much believe in balance.
In an increasingly volatile and unpredictable world, it’s vital for any organization to focus on its diversity in general, not just on gender. There is no doubt that mixed teams are a great source of strength, as they draw from a huge pool of valuable experiences. An organization’s leadership needs to fully reflect the diversity of its customers and other stakeholders. Only then will it be sensitive enough to respond to the changes in expectations, views and demands that can eventually lead to abrupt challenges – or new opportunities. There is no doubt that bringing many different opinions to the table can only improve decision-making.
Therefore, I am convinced that societies and companies have much to gain when they fully tap the power of diversity – not just in times of crisis. Fortunately, we have seen rapid progress in diversity – also in leadership ranks. Organizations have become much more permeable and inclusive. Nevertheless, my dream is that, at some point, we will no longer have to talk about gender, equal opportunities or diversity – because it will become a natural part of our lives.
Published: October 2020
Images: Emmanuel Jambo; Andreas Kuehlken/DHL