By Diane Merlino
Try these ideas about leadership on for size: Empathy is innovation. Vulnerability is strength.
They might sound a bit airy, but the extraordinary research that’s the foundation of the recently released The Athena Doctrine. How women (and the men who think like them) will rule the future (Jossey-Bass 2013) leaves no room for uncertainty. What people value is changing worldwide, and those changes demand that business leaders — in fact, leaders in any realm of human endeavor — become competent in a new set of skills where empathy, openness, collaboration, transparency, patience and humility are essential for sustainable success.
The first round of research for The Athena Doctrine, coauthored by John Gerzema and Pulitzer Prize winner Michael D’Antonio, cast a very wide net across tens of thousands of participants.
“We interviewed 64,000 people in 13 countries, and we did it across a wide swath of political, cultural and economic diversity,” said Gerzema, the best-selling author, social strategist, and leadership consultant who is executive chairman overseeing insights for Young & Rubicam Group and WPP’s BAV Consulting. “We were focused on trying to understand if there had been some substantial cultural and societal shifts when it comes to thinking about leadership and the role of women in business, politics and society.”
The research revealed “some profound shifts in terms of people wanting leaders to be more selfless, more empathetic and more collaborative,” Gerzema told Travel Weekly PLUS. “As researchers doing the observations, it occurred to us that these traits felt more feminine.”
A second study asked half the participants to categorize 125 different skills as masculine, feminine or neutral, and the other half to take those identified traits, “and tell us what would make for effective leaders, with no mention whatsoever of gender,” Gerzema said. “That’s where we started to see that people thought that a lot of skills and competencies identified as feminine are really important today.”
This is the first installment from a discussion between Gerzema and Travel Weekly PLUS Editor in Chief Diane Merlino about the social paradigm shifts that are mandating a new approach to leadership.
TW: You describe a fundamental shift in society and business toward embracing competencies and values that were once considered feminine, including empathy, generosity, vulnerability, humility and patience. What’s the top takeaway here for a business leader, John?
Gerzema: The skills that a leader needs to get the job are not the same skills they need to keep the job. Leaders getting to the top still need to be scrappy and tough and resilient and competitive and aggressive and the like. There’s a lot of command and control that goes on. But most leaders, men and women alike, learn that once they get to the top, the game is about engagement.
TW: Why are engagement skills so important?
Gerzema: If you’re going to run a sustainable company, particularly in the 21st century, you need continuous, open social dialog — engagement with your employees, your stakeholders, your community, your customers, your supply chain. That requires an additional set of skills and that’s what The Athena Doctrine is all about: the rise in importance of collaboration, sharing credit, flexibility, and vulnerability. Those can be a very powerful elixir of skills you can put in your arsenal to break through and drive meaningful change.
TW: Give us an example of how those skills can drive change.
Gerzema: One of my favorite interviews was Ijad Madisch, a virologist with a PhD. He was at Harvard, a really smart guy. He told me he kept getting stuck in his experiments but when he went around to ask for help, he was rebuffed. He was told, “You look foolish asking all these questions. You need to put on a better air.” He realized that there’s so much ego in science [that] he needed to find a different way. His vulnerability, his openness, his humility sought a path for him, and he created a company called ResearchGate.
Today there are two million scientists from 200 different countries on his platform, collaborating on 800,000 different research projects. It’s the idea of vulnerability in leadership. If you are open and honest about what you don’t know, suddenly you have this huge potential to create a new dialog and get help from other people. And there are a whole lot of other people who are willing to be the same way.
TW: What about the old guard who are in business leadership positions now but aren’t open to change? Is this shift you describe mainly taking hold with younger generations?
Gerzema: There are two sides to the coin here. It’s definitely an emerging leadership trend and it’s prevalent among startups where you find a lot of Millennials. But we also found it was a disruptive force in a whole bunch of other different industries, including science, like Dr. Madisch, and even politics. When I interviewed [President of Israel] Shimon Peres he said this great thing that I’ll never forget. He said, “We’re in a new world with many old minds, and the task of a leader is to adapt yourself.” That’s a theme we saw with many leaders around the world. No matter how much they’d accomplished, like a 90-year-old president of Israel, they all had the ethos of a student, the humility to want to see the world for what it could be rather than just what it is.
TW: What other key takeaways for business leaders did your research suggest?
Gerzema: In all of our data, we see that customers are increasingly mistrustful of corporations. In The Athena Doctrine, 86% said there’s too much power in large companies and institutions, so creating a more open dialog and being more accessible is important. It’s a rapidly changing world. In my interview with Shimon Peres, he also said that the inter-dependency created by globalization has established a time when the obligations of companies to be very transparent and to act in the best interests of countries and people is the new reality. I believe that the definition of a public company, the aperture of what that means, is opening up. Public companies have tended to think about themselves in terms of shareholders and shareholder value. Now we’re seeing that a values-led company, an ethical company, realizes that it’s got a wider stage of stakeholders they need to talk with and be accountable to. So the inclusion of these feminine values can be a powerful catalyst for leaders in the years to come.
TW: Was there anything in the research results that particularly stood out for you?
Gerzema: This is all about softer leadership, but by and large the people that we interviewed were fierce. They were tough people dealing with really tough situations. We interviewed the new provisional government leaders in Iceland after the collapse of the economy there, where trust of corporations and government was literally at zero, and they re-earned the public’s trust by working with citizens and crowdsourcing a new constitution [still pending approval].
We were in Japan right after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and the tsunami, and we met with educators and startups and a whole bunch of other people who were trying to build technology platforms to help people. One young man designed an Airbnb-like platform that allowed ordinary citizens to open up their doors to people who had been dislodged after the tsunami and the earthquake. There was crisis everywhere we went.
We were in Kenya, where there was violence after the elections. We were in Columbia, where the civil war and drugs are huge issues. But the people that we met had a feminine response to crisis.
TW: What do you mean by a feminine response to crisis?
Gerzema: Well, when we’re pushed to the brink what do we do? After 9/11, after the tsunami in Japan — after any crisis — the collective response of both men and women is compassion. It’s compassion and understanding, community and connection. Those are massive coping mechanisms to crisis. We saw that around the world in far different situations. Each one was unique, whether it was natural disaster or systemic challenges in society or wars and conflict. When we were in Israel, we interviewed the Major General Orna Barbivai. She was rewarding soldiers for de-escalating conflict, giving medals to people who averted things from happening. That’s an example of building feminine values, not only as an ethical and moral solution but also as a pragmatic solution to a major challenge.
This article first appeared on Travel Weekly.