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image of leaderWhen you need to solve a novel and important problem, what kind of leader do you want in charge? Does the word “decisive” make your list? What do we mean by “decisive”? How people approach and make decisions is one important dimension of workplace behavior where there are “gender” differences — more precisely, masculine-feminine differences. I define those terms using prototypes, Max and Fran. Max (who could be Maxwell or Maxine) represents the masculine approach to making decisions. Fran (Francis or Frances – woman or man) is the prototype for the feminine approach. They operate at different points on the masculine-feminine continuum. In the western world at least, key leadership attributes include being “decisive.” The term generally describes Max’s (the masculine) approach to making decisions. Max “leads from the front,” aligning the team on the goal and moving into action, straight for the goal. There are situations in which this approach is most effective – e.g., in emergencies or when time is short — and circumstances when it is not. When you need buy-in and creativity, Fran’s approach will get better results. Fran involves the team in identifying issues and proposing solutions. There is more process in weighing risks and upsides of multiple ideas. Which approach do you want on a team? The answer is, of course, both.

  • If a team is made up only of Max-thinkers, they will accomplish the goal efficiently. They may pursue the ideas of the “alpha” leader; pushing aside issues they see as not on the linear path to the goal. They may overlook key issues or impacts of their decision on people. They may march efficiently off a cliff!
  • If only Fran-like people are on a project, they will involve people, generate more creativity and build consensus. But they will generally take longer to reach a decision. They may get paralyzed by process or trying to reach consensus and never reach a decision!
  • If the team has a balance of Max’s and Fran’s (as is more likely if both men and women are on the team), the Maxes will keep the group focused on the goal, and the Frans will raise issues and perspectives that may make for a better, more sustainable outcome.

John Gerzema, author of The Athena Doctrine: How Women (and the Men Who Think Like Them) Will Rule the Future, says that the historically accepted form of leadership is overly masculine. He says that leaders today must add more traditionally feminine strengths to their tool kits, including soliciting diverse perspectives in making decisions. In a recent New York Times opinion, Therese Huston reviews studies answering the question, “Are Women Better Decision Makers”? The studies show that, under stress, there are gender differences, and women perform better. In stressful situations, women take smaller, surer risks and are more able to take another person’s perspective; men take bigger risks for bigger wins and become more self-centered. She concludes that this may explain why companies with women on their boards get better financial results. I agree. The real point goes beyond gender. It is about valuing both masculine and feminine forms of decision-making – in both men and women. We reserve the descriptors “decisive” and “strong leader” only to those that make decisions in Max’s style. Good decisions can also result from collecting input, processing various points of view and taking time to reflect. Colorado’s governor took time to decide on a death penalty issue, generating criticism that he is indecisive. President Obama was criticized for lack of leadership when he said, “We don’t have a strategy yet . . . It’s too soon to say” about events in Syria. For big, complex and important matters, recognizing the need for more thinking, more expertise and more reflection is a good thing! See more on this issue in my piece on Huffington Post.