When it comes to leadership in the world, women have always had a rough deal. But the tide is turning. As we head into the uncharted waters of the 21st century, it is becoming increasingly apparent that a new set of skills and attitudes is required to make a success of leading an organisation. And women seem to possess these skills in abundance. But their first challenge will be to stop trying to act like men in order to get ahead.

To understand where we are today, we really have to take a look back at where we’ve come from.
Human history can be roughly divided into five eras of unequal duration. In each era, certain structures dominated and different competencies were required for individuals, organisations and nations to maintain a competitive advantage. For four of these five eras, men have successfully conspired to deny women a chance of developing to leadership roles.
To say that women have never been in charge throughout history is, of course, a sweeping generalisation. There are some examples of tribes dominated by women (the Amazon warriors spring to mind), and some great female leaders (Cleopatra and Victoria stand proudly on opposites end of history in this regard). There are also, especially in our earliest histories, surprisingly many records of female deities and worship of feminine gods, betraying a possibly elevated view of women in prehistory than is generally accepted. (And, of course, even the greatest kings and conquerors had to go home at night to their wives and/or mothers, and be brought down to size for not hanging the armour up, or leaving a ring around the bath.) But acknowledging this, history informs us that overwhelmingly, it is the male that has dominated leadership, social structures and commerce throughout humanity’s history on this planet.

A Brief History of Humanity

The earliest human inhabitants of our planet are generally referred to as hunter-gatherers. In these harsh times of pre-history, there was a daily fight for survival, and the “survival of the fittest” was the rule of life. But that rule also meant it was easy for men to assume leadership roles. When the strongest and fittest get to lead, women were pushed to the rear.
History moved on, and writing, paper, the wheel and the domestication of animals tipped the balance of nature in humanity’s favour. A new era emerged. The agrarian economy was established in empires such as Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome, and lasted from about 7,000 BC to 1,500 AD. In this era, leadership usually vested with the rich, and the rich got their money and power from owning the land. In the “Dark Ages”, feudal lords held sway across Europe. Similar structures existed in Greece and Rome, and records from earlier empires indicate that land ownership was a critical issue. And most of these civilisations had rules about who could and could not own land. In most cases, women were expressly forbidden to own land, and daughters were excluded from inheritance rights. Once again, men were able to assume leadership roles in politics and civil society, to the exclusion of women.
As the printing press assisted the spread of more information to more people, in cheaper and faster formats, and mechanisation and industrialisation took hold, the great factories of the world emerged. In this Industrial era, which dominated from the mid 18th century to the 1950s, leadership was granted to those with the most academic training and work experience. “Find a good job in a big company, and stay there” was the mantra for success. In this environment, the gender playing fields could have been levelled. But, women were excluded from studying, were restricted in their access to the (literal) men’s clubs where big business was done, and had to step out of the corporate world every now and again to have children in a world before reliable contraception. The glass ceiling was well and truly bolted in place.
In the middle of the 20th century, computers and networks ushered in the Information era, causing a post-Industrial society to emerge. Services overtook agriculture, mining and manufacturing as the main employer in the developed world. The past 50 years of world history have seen the rise of “clever people” to the top of the economic food chain. Not just those with degrees or experience, but those with savvy, guts and balls (and not a few with just plain good luck), have now risen to the top.
In this era, women have been able to step out of the shadows and start to play a major role. Evidence of this shift comes from the IT industry itself, where a large proportion of the biggest companies are run by women. No longer can men keep women at bay, especially since the introduction of the Pill in the 1960s has given women control over their own fertility.

A Brief History of the Future

But, the cycle of history is not finished yet. In a high tech world, people are demanding high touch. While machines have largely taken over the physical tasks of the Industrial era, computers continue to take over the mental tasks of the Information era. The professions are under siege from mechanical white collar machines, itching to replace the accountants, lawyers, engineers, actuaries and others. The Information age is rapidly giving way to a new era. A Connection economy is emerging.
Today, you and your competitors are selling similar products to the same customers through similar channels at a similar price. You use similar advertising techniques in the same media, making similar claims. Even where you have a differentiator, your competitors are watching so closely that they copy it within a few weeks. And you even swap staff with those competitors anyway. So why do people choose to buy from you? And why would they choose to work for you? Your competitive advantage lies increasingly in relationship. That elusive “soft” side of business. And women are generally much better equipped for this than men.
In the emerging economy, relationship, emotional intelligence, empathy and networks are critical for success. But not enough companies are making this shift quickly enough. The business world is still a “man’s world”, where openly competitive behaviour is still too common, and a single-minded focus on the bottom line is bringing corporates into disrepute. What is really needed now is a feminine touch, and those companies that realize this will discover a massive competitive advantage in the next few years.
Too many women are entering the workplace, determined to compete with men for the jobs available. While this is possible for some, it is not desirable. The challenge of the next few years is not to get more women into men’s jobs, but rather to change the very nature of the workplace so that it is more of a women’s world. That’s not to say that women can’t compete. Its just that they should choose not to, opting for a different style of corporate and personal development.

From Alpha Male to the Women’s World

A good example is the process of finding a replacement for Jack Welch of GE. These were big shoes to fill – Welch was considered by many, including TIME magazine, as the “manager of the century”, and had presided over two decades of staggering growth in the world’s largest company. Finding a successor involved a process that lasted the best part of a decade, starting with hundreds of initial internal candidates. One of the conditions given to the final set of candidates was that they had to resign from GE if unsuccessful. Only the final successful candidate would remain. When Jack Immelt was announced as the new GE chief, he was selected from a group of three finalists. The other two are now rising stars: Robert Nardelli, now chairman and CEO of Home Depot Inc and Jim McNerney, now CEO of 3M. As a matter of pride, Jack Welch reported in a live satellite conference in 2002 that GE produces more CEOs for other companies than any other company in the world. This certainly says something for GEs internal mentoring and leadership development programmes, but what a loss to the company of such talent! The “alpha male” approach may work well in a testosterone driven world, but, when the critical success factor of the future is the ability to attract and retain talented staff, a new approach to development is surely required.
This new style will become more and more dominant in the emerging connection economy, where relationships are the basis of competitive advantage, rather than efficiency, products and services or information. In the Industrial era employees rose to the top by gaining experience and by being competitive and politically astute (in many cases, manipulating). In the Information era the “clever” people rose to the top – people with strategic vision, able to inspire others and unite them towards the cause. In the emerging Connection economy, the emotionally intelligent people will rise to the top, and companies will be in a war for talent.
So, women may not be the best competitors in the current workplace designed by men, for men. But the workplace is changing. A new generation of employees are looking for something different at work. A new generation of customers are looking for something different in the marketplace. And that difference will be disproportionately enhanced by the feminine touch. If you don’t think the workplace is changing this much, then why does your company have a problem keeping your “bright young things”? A new generation requires new strategies to attract, recruit, retain, motivate and reward them.
Its time to let the ladies lead.

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