Toegel: There is no feminine leadership

Posted: August 27, 2012 by jennroig in English, Interviews
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This is the unedited, English version of the interview to Ginka Toegel, director of the Strategies for Leadership Program, at IMD, Switzerland. The original Spanish version was published by AmericaEconomia, on 9 January 2012.

Ginka Toegel

Toegel’s perspective does not separate between leadership styles, whether a male or a female leader, what she does observe is a number of specific skills that may be easier to achieve by women, and other group of skills that are rather easier for men.

What exactly would you define as feminine leadership?

I don’t actually differentiate between female and male leadership. I differentiate between good and bad leadership. Transformational and transactional leaders. But not necessarily between female and male leadership.

Then, why to teach a program specifically aimed to women in executive positions?

We have a program focused on women executives not because they have a completely different leadership styles, but because research suggests that some specific capabilities are more difficult for women to develop than for men, as there are other capabilities which are more difficult for men to develop than for a woman. Both genders must spend more time in developing certain capabilities.

For example, men seem to have difficulties at dealing with emotions of people around them whereas women find it much easier. On the other side, women struggle more when it comes to communicate diligences and strategies, or being percieved as more confident and assertive, or doing or utilizing better the network.

That’s the reason why we have a program for female executives, because we focused more specifically on these skills, for which we know, based on research, that women struggle more with.

You have said: “It is important that they accept that they can lead differently”, women don’t need to be like men to lead” and there’s a lot of people that agree with you within gender studies. But also there are other saying that women in leadership positions tend to defeminize themselves and adopt men attitudes in order to lead, arguing the leadership style of leader women such as Thatcher, Albright, Angela Merkel.

You know, if you look at all the examples you have given, Margaret Thatcher, or Angela Merkel. I don’t think that everyone would agree that they are defeminized. In other words, the definition of defeminization would be that they don’t come across as women, in term of their behavior. And we know that women sometimes tend to overdo what we call the agentic type of behavior. In other words, they tend to become more dominant, more assertive, almost aggressive. A kind of behavior that people tend to perceive as more like men. Plenty of research suggests that if women do that they are not going to be perceived as good leaders, because they need also to meet their gender role. And their gender role is to be perceived as friendly, approachable, warm, taking care, providing support. Only when women are perceived to be communal, warm and not just agentic (Agentic means behaviors which are perceived as assertive, dominant, to be in control with the situation, being proactive). If women are perceived only showing a type of agentic behavior people have the feeling that they are phony, not authentic, because they violate their gender stereotype. And the gender stereotype requires them to be communal, in terms of friendly, supportive, warm, taking care of people around them. Only when women kind of combine those tools they are going to be perceived as effective.

Angela Merkel, for example, is perceived as someone who is in control with the situation, quite assertive, but at the same time she does not come across unfriendly, she does not come across as a person who es very cold. Actually she comes across as a warm person. In Germany the perception is that she cares about the nation, she takes care of people around her. So, she is not violating her gender stereotype, in that sense, she is not defeminized.

When we look at Margaret Thatcher, yes she was very agentic, in control, very assertive, dominant, proactive. But if you go through her memoirs, and also what people wrote about her, she was very much taking care of people around her. So, the perception, what make women good leaders is what they pick from both sides. Not just being agentic but also being very communal.

Now that Christine Lagarde is the head of the IMF, people say that this kind of feminine leadership would help to overcome this crisis. What are your thoughts in this regard?

Again, I think we are doing a lot of generalizations. Because risk propensity is an individual variable. There are women who can be incredibly risky, and there are also men who are very risk averse. All the problem with that notion is the following one:

if they have the feeling that women are risk averse -and it’s great that they are now taking over financial institutions or become CEO of big companies, we are implying that when the crisis is over and we go back to normal, then we would need men who are more risky to produce growth, because women are not going to deliver substantial growth since they are going to be risk averse. And that is something I struggle with. There are female CEO who are risky, like Indra Nooyi the chief executive officer of PepsiCo, who is as risky or risk averse as any male individual within her company.

So this called notion that women in management position they are going to be more cautious and kind of risk averse, I’m not particularly convinced about it purely because we haven’t seen so many women in senior management positions, so there is no specific proof about it.

Specifically about this program, what kind of skills women develop? Is it meant to be fitted for political leaders as much as economic leaders?

Absolutely. We have for example senior women from the business world, but at the same time we have also political leaders. For example, the parliament in Nigeria regularly has sent students, we have women senators from there. We have women who come from the non-profit sector. So the program is not only specialized only for women in senior positions in the business environment, it’s basically for women in senior positions in different sectors.

Regarding the skills that are supposed to emerge from working with horses. You said that horses “incredibly responsive to relationships and hierarchies” and that is why you can use them as metaphor, but how really effective this can be when in real life women will be facing challenges from male and female peers who may not be as responsive to hierarchies themselves?

We use the horses, as I said, as a kind of a metaphor and this means that the horse gives you a very genuine response. To give an example, women sometimes have the feeling that by giving order followers are just going to do whatever she wants. As the boss, I just need to tell the people what to do and they will do it, or peers, the same thing. I can see many many examples where women, senior women, who approach the horse, and say, ok let’s go, and the horse doesn’t follow. It doesn’t follow because first of all the horse doesn’t trust the person that she is going to lead in the right direction. Unless the female leader establishes a relationship nothing is going to happen. What we observe in that situation is what are the natural tendencies that women normally have. We use the horse and the relationship with the horse to initiate a discussion about their leadership styles, giving some feedback on what works and what doesn’t. This is how we use the horses.

When we say horses are very sensitive when it comes to hierarchies what we mean is that horses sense when they feel in authority, because if someone is less confident, less assertive, well the horse to be led, to allow itself to be led, the horse needs to feel that the person takes up the authority. Takes up the leadership role. If the horse does not sense this, then it’s not going to follow. That’s how we work with this concept of hierarchy.

Would you like to add something?

Just a comment to the horses experience. The interesting thing is some women initially are quite skeptical. They express how horses are a development for my everyday work? Well, by the end of the day, actually 100% of them are converted because of the conversation that takes place. What is their leadership style? And we use it for discussion with the coach about their leadership style, what works and what doesn’t.

I would also tell what are the skills we work on during the program. We talk about self-awareness, we work on confidence, assertiveness, also developing an authentic leadership style, not pretending somebody else but finding their own signature. We work with the voice, what the voice projects, we have a workshop on voice, and of course a lot on coaching, individual coaching and feedback.

There is also some aspects of mentoring that we encourage through an alumni network, younger students who can be mentor by ex participants in the program if they wish to… the alumni regularly organize events where they meet and talk about relevant issues to their works. There’s also peer coaching.

Even a senior executive could be mentored by a younger executives because you can be mentored on different things. Let’s a senior executive can be mentored by a young participant on how social networks in Internet work. This young participant can coach on how to navigate in this new virtual interconnected environment. This is also an important resource they can count when the program ends. There’s a president of the network who keeps the network alive. The network keeps growing with every new edition of the program.


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