Sheryl Sandberg has created a firestorm of controversy with her campaign to challenge women to work harder to become leaders. Her book, Lean In, seems to promote assertiveness and ambition as the path to senior executive leadership.
But she is wrong. Dead off the mark in my assessment. And that’s a shame. I have been advising and coaching men and women senior executives for over 30 years, and believe me, the world is screaming for more women leaders. Lots more. And not just in business. We also need them in politics and religion. We need the unique strengths of female emotional intelligence everywhere. Yes, I am talking about actual gender differences. The positive kind that have been scientifically validated and that I have observed as I have developed leaders and business strategy.
Here’s the female brain’s edge–Empathy. Real, genuine, emotional empathy. Dr. Daniel Goleman invented the field of emotional intelligence or EI. Lately he’s been working with neuroscientists to study the regions of the brain that enable people to be self-aware, control impulses, and empathize with others. Of course, you know where I am going with this. A majority of women have brains better wired for emotional intelligence than men. This has the potential to be a huge advantage in inspiring, motivating, and engaging people toward a compelling vision. It is a powerful advantage for collaborating. Yet, it turns out women have one major disadvantage regarding emotional intelligence. They tend to magnify failure, disappointment, misunderstanding, and stress. In fact, women tend to internalize stress, blaming themselves, while men externalize stress by blaming others.
It’s on this last point that Sandberg tends to over focus. She seems to say if women would be emotionally tougher, more insistent, and work harder without feeling guilty for neglecting their loved ones they would be more successful. The sad thing is that these are things men already do extremely well. Men are frankly awesome at being hard-driving workaholics. That’s our strength. But you don’t become successful by trying to turn your weaknesses into strengths. And right now, women’s core strength of emotional intelligence is potentially the single greatest driver of economic value creation for business in the 21st Century.
As we emerge from the Great Recession, the biggest challenge companies face is igniting growth. Ever since the birth of the Total Quality movement which transformed itself into Six Sigma and Lean Process, global companies have been obsessed with taking cost out of their business. “More with less” has created a generation of analytical leaders chained to spreadsheets and PowerPoints. Reducing reality to numbers is something a non-empathetic brain excels at. The result is that most businesses have benchmarked themselves into stifling mediocrity.
What every leader wants now is value-added innovation. Innovation that gets customers’ attention, creates emotional energy (brand), and becomes a unique value advantage. What’s a bit pathetic is to observe leaders trying to activate the creative juices demanding their people “innovate dammit”… as if the same hyper-analytical processes that produce efficiency will also create game-changing innovation. Take my word for it—it doesn’t.
This is where the strength of women leaders comes in. Yes, I am talking about value-added innovation. Its greatest fuel is consumer empathy. The true, unabridged emotional kind of empathy. You see men are capable of empathy, too. It’s just that typical male empathy is primarily analytical. We look at emotional feelings as something to manipulate or a problem to solve. Goleman’s research reveals that a female’s brain has many more neural connections focused on feeling what others are feeling. This genuine, emotional empathy produces two responses: relieve the source of pain immediately (comfort, support, communication) and eliminate the root cause of the pain (innovate, invent, solve). What I am proposing here is that the native emotional intelligence of women is better designed to understand customer desires and pain points and that they could be much better than competitive, analytical male brains at innovating value that customers actually value. And creating unique value that customers are willing to pay for in a world quickly being crowded by knock-offs, commodities and copycats is the game changer.
Recent research comparing the emotional intelligence of the top 10% of male leaders appears to back me up. Goleman’s research shows that these outstanding leaders have much higher emotional empathy than typical male-brained leaders. So perhaps the path for women to high level leadership is not to become simply more ambitious and hard working but rather to develop and advance their powerful emotional intelligence that enable them to collaborate to create products and services people really want and human friendly workplaces that attract the commitment of world class talent.
Yes, we need more women in senior leadership. Many more. Enterprises that have courage to value the consumer empathy that women can bring will have a distinct, innovation advantage. But I won’t hold my breath. Modern corporations are systematically designed to favor highly competitive meat eaters. The most realistic future for women in leadership positions is to promote a new generation of female entrepreneurs who are too impatient to wait for men to see their value. Women who will create value-adding enterprises that redefine and remake the 21st century. Women who will, ironically, out-compete men because of their natural strengths at not competing. I am looking forward to it.