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What Fatherhood Can Tell Us About Leadership

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in LDRLB.

As economists debate the lingering effects of the Great Recession, businesspeople worldwide are reflecting on the experience of surviving and thriving despite the downturn. Those we met on a post-recession, worldwide tour of enterprises great and small, say that growth now depends on satisfying customers who want to do business with companies that demonstrate qualities and virtues that were rarely discussed in capitalist circles. Until now.

Whether we talked with an insurance executive in Germany, a chef in Peru, or a fish processor in Japan, the message was the same. The consumer marketplace wants a human connection with businesses, a relationship that requires empathy, trust, communication, and transparency. “We ask the person who is sharing our food [the customer] to try something new – alpaca, sea urchin – and because they trust, they do, and they like it,” explained Gaston Acurio, who built a global restaurant business in Lima despite the recession. “We want to conquer the world, emotionally.”

Half artist, half entrepreneur, Acurio has opened outlets in seven countries., emphasizing authentic Peruvian cuisine at a range of prices. He seeks influence as much as he seeks profit, and insists that as he tries to “seduce other worlds with [our] food” business growth will come naturally.

Acurio’s leadership style, which he traces to his mother and grandmother, fits the ideal expressed by 64,000 men and women we surveyed to discover consumer preferences around the world. We consistently heard praise for businesses that demonstrate empathy, loyalty and flexibility and found global rejection for businesses perceived to be aggressive, stubborn, or selfish.

Remarkably, when we asked people to tell us which leadership qualities they considered “traditionally feminine” and which once they considered “traditionally masculine” the alignments were the same around the world. In every country the “Ten Best Traits” were dominated by those most associated with women. Indeed eight of the top ten traits are rated “feminine” and only two are termed “masculine.”


Top Ten Traits for Effective Leaders*

Feminine          Masculine


Plans for future










(*Thirteen country survey of 64,000 people in nationally-representative samples November 2012. Survey conducted by John Gerzema, BAV Consulting, WPP Group PLC. Countries represent 65% of global GDP and include Brazil, Canada, China, Chile, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, South Korea, United Kingdom and The United States)


Not surprisingly, respondents were negative about the men who run things and eager for women to get a chance. A little more than 57% percent agreed with the statement, “I’m dissatisfied with the conduct of men in my country.” Yet nearly the same number disagreed with the notion, “The role of men in society is in decline.”

That masculinity is criticized and seen as inescapable — poses a challenge from the marketplace: To lead successfully, men need to act less like men and more like fathers in the workplace. The values of fatherhood can be learned and applied by any man, yet are undervalued as ‘soft’ and not applied to the workplace. Nurturing, selflessness and patience are leadership competencies that are in demand: In our surveys, 81% of people said that ‘today’s times require that we be more kind and empathetic to others’, while 81% of people said that ‘power is now influence rather than control.”

These sentiments were strongest among the young, in more mature consumer economies such as Japan, Western Europe, and North America. Combined with hundreds of interviews with leaders worldwide, the data told us that the hyper-competitive masculine energy that built companies in the past might not lead to success in the future. Our data shows that consumers trust one in four companies on average, and people now prefer to work with, support, and purchase from companies that engage them openly, honestly, and cooperatively.

The most unexpected story of this dynamic comes from the world of insurance, where a German entrepreneur invited friends and neighbors to create buying pools that would become self-monitoring and share in refunds when they kept claims low. Tim Kunde’s company, Friendsurance, emphasizes relationships, social virtue, and accountability. Founded three years ago, it has double-digit growth every year, while providing home, health, and auto coverage. This has been accomplished on the basis of trust and friendship rather than an adversarial contest between an insurer desperate to limit claims and policyholders determined to maximum benefits. Key to it all has been Kunde’s empathy for consumers and his ability to trust them with insider information on his rates, payouts, profits, and refunds.

We found the ultimate example of the value of openhearted business practices in Kyodo, Japan where the empathy of customers saved a corporation from disaster. Nagato Kimura’s Kinoya fish company was destroyed by a devastating earthquake and Tsunami in 2011. His customers, hearing of the tragedy, flocked to rescue his remaining stock and then conducted fundraisers to help Kinoya rebuild. This effort grew out of a longstanding relationship based on a high quality product, low prices, and Kimura’s loyalty to Kyodo. Kinoya re-opened last November.

The lessons for the future are clear. Leadership that applies the lessons of fatherhood is the key to success in the post recession economy, where the world is increasingly open, fragile and transparent. In Jerusalem we met with President Shimon Peres, who told us ‘We are in a new world with many old minds. The challenge is to adapt yourself. A leader is here to serve’.

Fathers understand this better than anyone.