By any possible measure, 2020 has been a difficult year. Approaching its end, the prospect of prolonging the pain, uncertainty, and instability of this pandemic is both real and dreadful. But there is arguably a silver lining.
We are seeing an important evolution take place during a time that has made many people pay special attention to leadership. More are shifting from an outdated model of macho leadership to a far less toxic, more benevolent one. Could 2020 be the year that finally killed the macho leader? Although it is too soon to celebrate, we are seeing positive signs everywhere.
Most notably, Jacinda Ardern has emerged as a global leadership role model. This is largely based on her performance during the pandemic which was recently rewarded with a decisive reelection victory. Like other female heads of state, from Angela Merkel to Sanna Marin, and Tsai Ing-wen, Ardern represents a contrast from the traditional leadership archetype of someone “tough,” aggressive and self-assertive, which explains why she’s frequently compared to the likes of Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro. The real reason is not so much gender, as approach or style. Ardern embodies a more humane, empathetic—traditionally feminine—type of leadership that focuses on making a difference rather than on self-aggrandizement.
If the pandemic offered one big lesson, it’s that people are clearly better off when their leaders are rational, honest, and empathetic. Although this shouldn’t come as a surprise, the unfortunate reality is that most leaders don’t actually fit this profile. It took a global crisis to reveal the problem with macho leadership, so often worshiped as heroic even in Hollywood movies.
Ardern’s own words point to the paradox that strong is weak, while compassion is a source of strength:
“One of the criticisms I’ve faced over the years is that I’m not aggressive enough or assertive enough, or maybe somehow, because I am empathetic, it means I’m weak. I totally rebel against that. I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong.”
And it’s not just politics. In business, a handful of leadership role models showcase some of the critical, more humane, more feminine features of great leadership, even when practiced by men. For example, when the pandemic devastated the airline industry virtually overnight, Delta CEO Ed Bastian ramped up employee communications despite knowing little about the path forward. As the months went on, Bastian maintained a compassionate, humane, long-term stance while acknowledging the risks that lay ahead. Limiting employee furloughs and extending middle-seat vacancies longer than competitors, Bastian chose caring over cutthroat leadership, betting on the long term to regain the company’s prior success. As passengers slowly come back to air travel, Delta is seeing the benefits of this leadership approach, while Bastian consistently credits others—not himself—for success:
“Fortunately, thanks to the hard work, shared sacrifices and innovative thinking of our people, Delta will avoid involuntary furloughs for our flight attendants and ground-based frontline employees in the U.S.”
CEO Bob Chapman at industrial manufacturer Barry-Wehmiller provides another apt example. Chapman attributes the success of his 11,000-employee company to a leadership approach that focuses on “improving the lives of those they have the privilege to lead.” When business leaders “define success as money, power, and position, rather than making a difference,” Chapman maintains that everyone suffers: employees, customers, and even investors.
The big lesson, if you are interested in being a leader, or perhaps in being a better leader, is to move away from the traditional macho behaviors and embrace a more vulnerable leadership style. Paradoxically, tough macho leaders put their teams and followers at risk. Vulnerable leaders who don’t hide their weaknesses make their teams and followers stronger. Ironically, although many refer to the macho-type leader as an “alpha male,” the term is a misnomer. As primatologist Frans de Waal finds, in the wild, “alpha males actually possess leadership traits like generosity, peacekeeping, and empathy.”
A discernible shift from celebrating macho leaders to celebrating vulnerable leaders is underway. In an uncertain, complex, interdependent world where one tiny virus can wreak havoc everywhere, leadership characterized by overconfidence, defensiveness, and rule by fear fails spectacularly. The health results across nations bear this out. We do not claim that these differences are because of female leadership, but rather because of their effectiveness. Any leader, whether of a nation or a corporation, who is more focused on gaining fans and seeking praise than on building others’ capabilities and embracing constructive criticism is at extreme risk when agile responses are needed to cope with novel challenges.
- seeks praise
- craves fans and followers
- blames others when things go wrong
- creates a culture of fear
- embraces criticism
- builds others’ capabilities
- takes responsibility when things go wrong
- creates psychological safety
To adopt a more vulnerable style, we recommend starting with a rational sense of humility about what lies ahead. This triggers a productive sense of curiosity that drives interest in others and in learning more about what they know and need. No leader can succeed over the long-term without that interest, precisely because they will then fail to leverage the capabilities of followers.
Things will go wrong in an uncertain and interdependent world. And when they do, macho leaders blame others, while vulnerable leaders are strong enough to know that taking responsibility is the way to continue to earn followers’ trust and support. Macho leaders create a culture where people are terrified to speak up with dissenting views, while vulnerable leaders put effort into creating psychological safety to support dialogue and collaborative problem-solving. We are confident that readers can think of many examples of this from their own experience, to supplement those on the global stage.
The root cause of macho leadership’s weakness is self-deception. Macho leaders are unable or unwilling to confront the truth that we are all vulnerable in the face of an ever-changing set of local and global challenges. They deceive themselves and others—for a while—by repeating claims about their own successes and boasting of their unique ability to supply answers and solutions. But that deception is exposed, eventually, when performance failures come to light. Vulnerable leaders, in contrast, are self-aware enough to understand their profound dependence on the expertise and motivation of others.
Ultimately, it is up to followers to pick the right kinds of leaders. And so we all have a responsibility to learn to make smart choices and to challenge our preconceptions. When we opt to follow those who have our collective interests in mind, and the wisdom and strength to acknowledge what they know and what they don’t know, we—along with our leaders—are better off.
It takes a certain maturity to resist the easy allure of a leader who promises quick fixes or presents stereotyped views of presumed enemies. In the face of great challenges, all of us are vulnerable to a desire for easy answers and scapegoats. But if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that easy doesn’t work.
Amy C. Edmondson, Ph.D. is the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School. She has written numerous books and articles and is best known for her research on psychological safety, summarized in her recent book, The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth.
Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Ph.D. is an international authority in leadership assessment, people analytics, and talent management. He is the Chief Talent Scientist at ManpowerGroup and a professor of business psychology at both University College London and Columbia University. His most recent book is Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (And How to Fix It).