In 2020, civic and commercial leaders alike faced what was an unprecedented test of their mettle. A distinct moment in history gave many the opportunity to show what ‘crisis leadership’ truly is.
Some governments have drastically, tragically failed, whereas in other parts of the world, they’ve passed with flying colours. If nothing else, we can walk away from the ‘year like no other’ with a clearer understanding of what it was that separated success from failure in leadership, and who among those leaders achieved the most.
Countries like New Zealand, Finland, Germany, Taiwan and Iceland fall into this category. What’s the one thing they all have in common? Women in leadership.
Granted, it’s easier for island nations (like Iceland and NZ) to enforce border controls than it was (and is) in landlocked or bordered nations. But it’s the enforcement that counts. The decisions made behind the decisive, aggressive action that allows those nations, among others, to achieve control of the seemingly uncontrollable, where other nations faltered.
Not surprisingly, it’s not uncommon to see the same patterns occurring in the commercial landscape.
Many female CEOs took early action, making decisive and potentially unpopular decisions in the face of an invisible adversary. There are many lessons to be learned from these women’s purposeful, aggressive actions, which contradict historically-biased notions of women relying solely on emotional intelligence when it comes to decision-making. Society seldom considers our respective people and management skills, and our ability to generate trust and communicate empathy.
Leading by example
There are several recent examples from which learnings can be drawn.
While empathy is not the sole domain of women, it takes a crisis like 2020’s to see just how urgently such a quality is needed in the modern CEO. When this CEO is a woman, the correlation becomes more obvious.
Take Karen Cahn, for example. She is the founder and CEO of crowdfunding platform IFundWomen. Their mission statement outlays what’s at the heart of their operation: to equip women with the confidence, knowledge, and funding they need to bring their visions to life. Cahn was also among 75 tech leaders who took the bold step of writing to Congress, advocating for Planned Parenthood.
When COVID-19 shut down scores of traditional ‘shopfront’ businesses across the US, IFundWomen started a relief fund, offering grants to those women-owned businesses impacted by the pandemic.
Cahn told NBC News, “During the pandemic, IFundWomen has been the lifeline that has allowed our members to not only to survive, but, more importantly, to grow.”
What really matters
Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, CEO of 20-First, a global consulting firm supporting businesses through enhancing gender diversity, told the BBC that male bosses have been attempting to replicate the work of their female colleagues in 2020.
“Every smart CEO watches what other leaders do, and I would suggest that what many [men] have done is borrow from the female playbook, which involves being…caring of their stakeholders, and upping their communication skills,” she said.
“Anglo-Saxon countries strike me as having a high expectation of masculinity, so with leaders… combative, individualistic and cut slightly macho. Female leadership is different in style and tone.”
Jessica Grossman, CEO of non-profit women’s health pharma Medicines360, said that being a CEO in Silicon Valley posed a host of challenges, from unconscious bias, to imposter syndrome and outright sexism. But the coronavirus pandemic has proven (in her part of the world, at least) that female CEOs can be good people managers, with the ability to quickly adapt and multitask – skills that are critical for a CEO.
She told the San Francisco Business Times that the pandemic has forced the business world’s hand on issues which directly impact women, and that having a female CEO in control better allows these issues to be directly actioned.
“I’m already seeing changes that I expect to last beyond the pandemic, including more flexible work hours, increased ability to work from home and more diverse work environments,” she said. “I also hope to see a continued shift where women are not the sole caregivers at home so we can regain our role in the economy that the pandemic has taken away.”
2020 as a litmus test for female leadership
The situation remains that women are vastly underrepresented in just about every sector, including national leaderships, boards, and C-suites. We face enormous obstacles to such positions, and COVID-19 has taught us that the status quo is not serving the people as well as it should.
Women can (and do) display a terrific array of leadership skills: and decisive action has been the hallmark of female leaders – both in business and government – who have excelled during COVID-19.
These women are models for leadership for when the stakes are at their highest. Both men and women – from all walks of life – can learn from what women have achieved during this crisis.
Anyone in a position to rethink the majority male C-suites and board rooms in their organisation should take the time to do just that. Gender diversity and equality has mostly been about representation, but 2020 has revealed that it can be about setting an example for gold-standard leadership as well.