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Harvard Business Review: "Feminine" Values Can Give Tomorrow's Leaders an Edge

This article was originally published in the Harvard Business Review blog.

A Pew Center study released in May revealed that working mothers are the sole or primary provider in a record 40 percent of U.S. households. Only a few days before, hedge fund billionaire Paul Tudor-Jones created a stir by remarking at a conference that women will never rival men as traders because babies are a "focus killer".

Here we have the dynamics of a new economy colliding with the old establishment like tectonic plates. But as developed nations restructure from manufacturing to knowledge and services, my bet is on the moms, or more specifically, women — and men who can think like them. Survey data my colleague Michael D'Antonio and I gathered from 64,000 people in nationally representative samples in 13 countries — from the Americas and Europe to Asia — point to widespread dissatisfaction with typically "male" ways of doing business and a growing appreciation for the traits, skills and competencies that are perceived as more feminine.

The results, published in our new book The Athena Doctrine, reveal that 57% of people were dissatisfied with the conduct of men in their country, including 79% of Japanese and South Koreans and more than two-thirds of people in Indonesia, Mexico, U.K and the United States. This sentiment is amplified among the millennial generation (young men and women age 18-30) of whom nearly 80%are dissatisfied — most notably in highly masculine societies like Brazil, South Korea, Japan and India.

If people have grown cold on male-dominated structures and leadership, they offer a solution: Two-thirds of survey respondents felt that "The world would be a better place if men thought more like women", including 76% of the French and Brazilians and 70%of Germans. Those stats include majorities of men who equate masculine incumbency with income disparity, continuing high levels of unemployment and political gridlock.

Curious as to how leaders could "think more like women," we asked half our sample — 32,000 people around the world — to classify 125 different human characteristics as either masculine, feminine or neither, while the other half rated the same words (without gendering) on their importance to leadership, success, morality and happiness. Statistical modeling revealed strong consensus that what people felt was "feminine" they also deemed essential to leading in an increasingly social, interdependent and transparent world.

We next visited 18 countries, interviewing over 100 innovative women and men in medicine, politics, education, start-ups, NGOs and other sectors of the economy. Here are two of many examples we came across that show how anyone can lead with a more feminine ethos:

Empathy Is Innovation. While leaders spend considerable time and effort trying to envision markets and pushing out innovation, empathy can often generate simple, yet breakthrough ideas. In her years working as an advocate for charities in Britain and abroad, Anna Pearson noticed a pattern: there were many people who wanted to volunteer — but were too busy (or had schedules too varied) to commit to a cause. To bridge the gap between what volunteers could give and what people need, Anna re-imagined volunteering on a very small scale. Her London-based non-profit Spots of Time connects organizations with people who can give an hour or so at a time, and often at a moment's notice. The lesson? Anna trained her empathy not just on beneficiaries of charity but also on volunteers. That kindness and sensitivity to others was the catalyst for creativity.

Vulnerability Is Strength.You can't read a business article today without hearing about "learning from failure". (A Google search for the phrase yields 129 million results.) But maybe there'd be less failing if we were willing to admit what we don't know in the first place. In Berlin we met Dr. Ijad Madisch, a Harvard-trained virologist who kept "getting stuck" in his experiments. When he asked his colleagues for help, he was chastised. Big-time scientists were supposed to project an image of supreme competence. Madisch realized that science needed a global community where the work took precedence over egos. So he started ResearchGate, a social network for scientists, which now has some 3 million members across 200 countries. The lesson? By letting down his guard and showing candor and humility, Madisch not only helped himself but also inspired others to join his cause. This advanced research far more rapidly than the old approach of working in cubicles and meeting at conferences.

Today's work requires a new leadership paradigm. Look at the list of competencies above and — whether you're a man or a woman — start working on them.

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