Should Women Really Be Leaning In? The Power of Humble Leadership

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May 19, 2014

Much of the recent debate around women’s unequal representation in positions of leadership has centered around Facebook COO Cheryl Sandberg’s advice that women should lean in and adapt the bold, aggressive characteristics of their male colleagues.

But, is that the best advice?

True confidence is critical for climbing the corporate ladder. Countless studies show that leaderless groups tend to elect self-promoting individuals as leaders, and that women tend to self-promote less than men.

The trouble with hubris and overconfidence

An article published in Psychology of Women Quarterly detailed a study in which, women displayed decreased motivation and performance when asked to boast about their own accomplishments. And, because people tend to misinterpret displays of confidence as a sign of competence (and because men are much more prone to hubris than their female colleagues), we unconsciously reinforce the idea that men are better leaders than women.

Leaning in can help women climb the corporate ladder. But the real question is, does adopting the dysfunctional behaviors of their male counterparts help women, and the companies they work for, in the long run? The short answer is no.

Leadership is the ability to build and maintain high-performing teams and inspire followers to abandon their selfish goals in favor of those of the team. Arrogance and overconfidence are antithetical to that goal.

In other words, nobody wants to work for an asshole – man or woman – and our research shows that around 60 percent of leaders currently in power (and as many as 75 percent) will fail because they are unable to build and maintain a team.

The power of humble leadership

Further, companies with humble leaders consistently outperform their competitors, and women have higher emotional intelligence and are naturally more humble, sensitive and considerate leaders than men (although there are exceptions to every rule). Perhaps this accounts for the findings presented in The Case for Investing in Women, which showed Fortune 500 companies with at least three women directors saw return on capital increase by at least 66 percent.

We aren’t here to argue that sexism does not exist in the workplace – women make up a mere 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions, even though they make up 47 percent of the U.S. labor force. And, to be accepted in the boys’ club of corporate America, women do have to adopt the aggressiveness of their male counterparts.

But, in the long run, those same qualities could be the very ones that lead to their downfall, and companies would be better served revamping their leadership selection programs to focus on real leadership ability rather than who is shouting the loudest.

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