My specialty is not gender differences, but my intention in writing about this topic is to stimulate conversation and discussions — pro and con — as regards to what I am suggesting. Leadership is an important issue in the world as currently constituted. As a cognitive anthropologist I have been studying, for the last 30 years, how the mind works, how people “make meaning,” how people form attachments to things and how people make decisions. In that search I think I might have inadvertently uncovered something fundamental about the sexes: Women cycle, Men Consummate.
With this said, can a female leader take us to a land of hopes and dreams or, in the current circumstance, diminish the ravages from the horrific Coronavirus invasion? As Dr. Fauchi would say, let’s consider the evidence.
There is still more males than females in top leadership positions, particularly in politics and business. Compared to males, fewer females are CEOs or on corporate boards and no female has occupied the Oval Office of the US Presidency. Yet, two female Heads of State have currently won high praise as their respective country leader and chief strategist against Covid-19s threat to life: Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, and Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand. Yes, these women lead countries that are smaller and more homogenous than America, but that does not take away from the personal qualities they have exhibited.
These women are joined by other women whose leadership has been exemplary: for example, the leaders of Ireland and Scotland, as well as Public Health Directors from such States as Ohio. Each of these women enacted or advocated an early and strong response to Coronavirus, followed through with testing and tracing and communicated with their respective audience with truth, empathy and a deeply-felt sense of guardianship and compassion. Each was sensitive to epidemiological realities, the common good and the emotional vulnerability of their constituencies. Ego and politics were not seen or heard.
That is in contrast to men such as Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, who deny, obfuscate and continuously deflect blame. These men represent the extreme opposite of good leadership. In the case of Trump, his response to the Coronavirus was sluggish, he shunned science, then he promoted unproven or outlandish treatments while no Federal action was developed. Not commented on much, but also significant, was the lack of any effort on Trump’s part to mourn the dead from the bully pulpit. His concern is only his re-election. His motive is always domination, not truth-telling, governing and collaboration.
Trump is an extreme case of poor leadership. Thankfully, many male leaders are far from that extreme.
Gender Differences Are More Than Physical, They Are Cognitive
Other analysts and writers have pointed out the above situation. What this current narrative provides is some understanding about the underlying cognitive differences between the sexes and how such gender differences can either give rise to cold, brutish leadership or leadership that displays a wise mind and a graceful temperament. Merkel and Ardern compared with Trump and Bolsonaro each have exhibited qualities that highlight extremes of the different evolutionarily-based, cognitive propensities that the sexes — as an overall population — are inclined toward.
In pre-history, men were charged, literally, with bringing home the bacon. Men, the hunters — bigger, stronger, faster — leave their group territory to find food, now. Women stayed in their home territory, mainly to give birth, bring up their young and to forage.
The U.S. equal rights amendment, the pill and economic necessities have helped eradicate those early, primitive conditions that were mainly determined by requirements satisfied by sexual dimorphism to deal with a wild, untamed world.
Because women intrinsically cycle, they tend to experience and understand patterns over time. They are more sensitive to how things move and evolve.
As such, the female is oriented to underlying dynamics, to the relationship between things, to the conceptual and to stability over the long-term. Hence, they are inclined to resolve conflicting meanings by creating higher-order concepts. When the context is complex and contains contradictory dynamics (which it so often is, nowadays), women have home field advantage.
Women tend to deal with complexity and unpredictability better than men. Under complex conditions, women can compose more sophisticated problem-structuring and problem-solving ideas while at the same time showing compassion and respect towards the populations they are charged to protect.
In contrast, the male is oriented to the present, the concrete, the visual, the “hit,” the win, the “me.” Evolutionarily speaking, the male explicitly displays his prowess. The male is in-the-now and, above all else, is a literal pragmatist who exhibits his power. Before the Coronavirus, think of Trump’s response to Mexican immigration: He orders a wall to be built. Neat, stereotypical boxes satisfy men’s need for immediacy and simplicity, but especially in the midst of a global pandemic, silos between different domains and different expertise — as well as considering a narrow range of possibilities — do not foot the bill.
Merging Logic and Sensuality
Nowadays, a word increasingly heard around many offices of Heads of State, C-Suites, media’s editorial boards and around Main Street’s dining rooms and living rooms, is “uncertainty.” It has always been true that knowing the answers to important and complex questions requires expertise. However, in today’s seemingly “undecodable” landscape, complexity can outpace the average person’s imagination. Women, typically being more self-reflective than men, can have richer imaginations that lead to creative possibilities.
New dynamics fashioned by Coronavirus’ intersection with the global economy, the digital world and the domestic and geopolitical context have rendered predictability opaque. Hence, it is now particularly necessary to understand things beyond their immediate surface manifestation. One thing is certain: wishful thinking and political calculations of voter support can kill us.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, when Vaclav Havel became president of Czechoslovakia, one of the things he said was, “What the world needs now is less explanation and more understanding.”
Havel went on to describe that explanation entails seeing the world as governed by finite laws a person thinks he can direct through successive approximations. Understanding requires comprehending meaning from the inside-out, in its unfolding. For understanding, the world can’t be approached solely from the cold, hard, linear and decomposed stance of explanation. In our current context, this in part means that economic numbers need to be balanced by a measure of the emotional well-being of the populace enlivened by a spirit of solidarity between the leader and the led — between the boss and “We, The People.” A good leader must bring this understanding to address how to combat the Coronavirus with a human sensitivity.
Capabilities such as reading each others’ emotions and moods, allowing time to listen and hear, trusting others who are outside your own biography and engaging in innovative metaphorical thinking, does not necessarily align well with management-like spreadsheets or dogmatism that reduce real people to the too-small boxes of “supporters” or “consumers”. In this era of high uncertainty, we now need a deeper understanding not only of institutions and of technologies, but also of human nature and the nature of mind. Defeating Covid-19 requires vaccine development and containment methodologies, but also a national population that trusts its leader, a trust based on the perception of a leader’s wisdom and empathy.
Men, who predominantly occupy the highest offices, often assume progress as a zero-sum game — competition, not collaboration — is the essence of their game. With female sensibilities there is more of a tendency to work together with others, and so there is a heightened chance for creating new solutions that reflect principles underlying a more enlightened strategic outlook, as well as creating more socially responsible outcomes over a longer-term. Trump is focused on his re-election and for Trump, election day — in reality some months away — is felt as if it’s everyday. He constantly reels the future into the present.
What Needs To Be Next
Creativity is now a necessity, not a luxury. Cognitively-speaking, women leaders and male leaders who can exhibit the more female-like propensities of an open-mind, a big-heart and a self-reflective consciousness (notice all these hyphens) seem to have an ability to be better caretakers of the highest national and human ideals.
Leaders such as Merkel and Ardern exhibit blends of both cognitive gender styles. They are guided by heart and mind, by the results of hard science and by an open, generous, soulful heart. They can have a spine of steel and can have a sensuality that is graceful and refined. They are not selfishly impulsive. No wonder many Americans hang on Dr. Fauchi’s every word. He’s a good example of a “trans-gender” sensibility: his actions can be strong, but his way of behaving reminds one of a benevolent, understanding parent.
America is so divided. America, not only a non-homogeneous country, but an extremist expression of factions that over recent times make up the UN-United States of America. To begin to heal that divide, America needs its next president to be capable of bold action, but with a gentle sensibility — a person who is capable of self-reflection so he or she can also be a witness to the human condition and so begin to help repair what needs repairing.
The personification of this kind of a leader is quite well exemplified by a quote from the speech John Nash gave when accepting the Nobel prize for economics, as beautifully represented by Russell Crowe in the Academy Award winning Best Picture, A Beautiful Mind:
“I’ve always believed in numbers, in equations and logic and reason, and after a lifetime of such pursuits I ask, what is logic, who decides reason? And I’ve made the most important discovery of my career, the most important discovery of my life: It’s only in the mysterious equations of love that any logical reasons can be found.”
Heads of State and heads of corporations take heed: life might just be better for everyone — and profits might benefit, too — if we all focused more on the common good than just on our own status.