Boudicca. Elizabeth the 1st. Angela Merkel. Indira Ghandi. Hilary Clinton. Catherine the Great. Aung San Suu Kyi. Cleopatra. The list of powerful female leaders is long and diverse. What do modern women in business leadership have in common with these and other female leaders past and present? The simple answer is likely: intelligence (emotional and intellectual). But is intelligence enough to triumph in the modern boardroom?
1. An evolutionary biologist will cite distinct roles played by males and females in our past as drivers behind different aptitudes in modern men and women. The modern boardroom, however, is not the jungle/savannah etc. It’s a nuanced psychological environment in which subtler form of persuasion can dominate old fashioned male triumphalism. It is an environment in which women can – and do – flourish precisely because they are women.
2. Women may be instinctively less aggressive; but they are perhaps more likely to be empathetic. Empathy (like altruism) is a very powerful social tool. It benefits the individual because it benefits the tribe. And yes: we are deeply tribal animals, like it or not. Altruistic or corporate psychopath: a good business leader requires excellent people skills, a keen mind, and the ability of focus on mid to long term goals. There’s no reason why these attributes will lie along gender lines. They’re just virtues that smart people have.
3. Ultimately fitness for leadership isn’t (or shouldn’t be) about gender, or any other kind of personal or social demarcation; it’s about the individual. Apparently ‘Boudicca was tall, of striking appearance and intelligent’. The Celtic leader had to achieve her goals largely through strategic violence. Few modern female executives are trying to win freedom from Roman invaders. They must be masters of strategy nonetheless.
Female strategising may by and large be less predatory than male; and that may be precisely why it’s so successful in the modern world. Long may it continue.