Angela Merkel in Germany, Tsai Ing-Wen in Taiwan, Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland and New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern have been widely praised for their considered yet caring approach to the coronavirus pandemic.
But saying that women make better leaders in a crisis would be an oversimplification, says performance coach and senior lecturer Alex Morgan of Leicester Castle Business School, based at De Montfort University Leicester (DMU).
“Whether it’s gendered or not, there are personality types that want to protect others, and that is because their lead values are protection and keeping people safe,” she says.
“Others have lead values of freedom (personal liberty, or economic freedom) and risk taking, and it’s at times such as these that we see what kind of leaders are needed right now – and in my view, that is the kind of leader in whom the protection instinct filtered to the top.
“What we got were type A males more interested in freedom of movement and liberty and the economy. To them, the measures they had to take were an anathema, which probably explains the resistance they felt and the conversations we are seeing now about groups lobbying for lockdown to end to protect the economy.”
Alex argues that the qualities for which Jacinda Ardern is now being lauded were once the ones she was told were those which needed improvement. She said: “Jacinda, as an example, has said that over the years she has been told she is too empathetic, not assertive enough and listens too much.
“What we’re seeing now is that these are precisely what everybody wants – honesty, and in this scenario, protection and empathy toward those she is looking after, which by extension is the whole country.”
The professional backgrounds of many female leaders – Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-Wen is a former law professor and Angela Merkel a quantum chemist and research scientist – likely ensured that that they were able to quickly recognise the danger and prepare their citizens.
Merkel’s clear and precise explanation of how coronavirus spreads quickly went viral, as she spoke about the dangers to Germany’s health system: “Caution is the order of the day, not overconfidence.” she said.
“Merkel’s scientific background meant that she knew how to view the reports and understood clearly the risk,” says Alex. “Boris Johnson just could not see the need to prepare quickly enough.”
This trend was also seen in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. A study conducted after the banking disaster found that banks led by women came out the other side in better shape than those run by men.
“What we have seen in these women leaders is that they are better at scanning for and assessing risk,” said Alex. “It’s not a purely female trait, however, as we do know that some women do demonstrate an ‘alpha’ personality.
“But Jacinda and the others, where they went first was protection. I don’t know if it’s a female thing but I do know is that it was the right thing to do.”