By Joanne Huskey and Kimberly Weichel
The world is reeling out of control. With the many crises we are facing simultaneously, who, we all ask, can lead us out of this time of crisis? What kind of leader do we need when a crisis hits?
The world feels out of kilter. We are suffering from disease and anxiety on a global scale. We have seen a disturbing rise in autocracy. There seems to be too much testosterone running the world. We are facing an unprecedented worldwide health pandemic and people globally are struggling economically, socially, and emotionally. On top of this, racial violence continues to rear its ugly head, but this time, people have had enough. They are demonstrating in the streets around the world for change.
One solution to the tumult, we believe, is to increase the amount of female leadership in our nation and in the world. In the first place, it is beyond time we had equity balance. We have long had a dearth of women leaders and the world seems to lack the very values that women embody. Historically women, because they bear the children, have cared not only about their own children but the whole village. It is not an accident that women have traditionally been in jobs that address the health, environment, human rights, and education of our communities. That holistic approach to problem solving is desperately needed today. It is a question of balance. While we have benefited from some enlightened male leadership, we desperately need decisive female voices and minds.
If we look at those who have guided us through some of the recent days of racial, health, and economic anguish, many of the greatest success stories have stemmed from women leaders. Somehow, women, who tend to think of the wider community, seem to get it.
In America, there is Muriel Bowser, the Mayor of Washington, DC, who asked her police force to show respect and restraint with the Black Lives Matter demonstrators in that city’s streets. In solidarity with their cause, she had “Black Lives Matter” painted in huge letters down 16th Street, which ends at the gates of the White House. There is Keisha Lance Bottoms, the Mayor of Atlanta, Georgia, who as a mother of a black son empathized with the messages of the demonstrators, called on people to unite peacefully, and vote for change. There is Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House who has been a leader in Congress for decades, calling for legislation that eases the economic hardships faced by hard working Americans during this time of health crisis and surging unemployment.
We know that good political leadership is key for the wellbeing of any country, but, particularly so in a time of crisis. We need leaders who can bring on effective, skilled advisors to assist them in making the best decisions on behalf of the whole society. During a crisis, such as the coronavirus pandemic, we have seen examples of excellent national leadership by a number of female presidents who reacted swiftly and reduced the spread of the virus, enabling them to open up their national economies much more quickly. Conversely, we have seen poor leadership by some male leaders, who ignore the advice of medical professionals and make unilateral decisions that put their states and nations in danger.
If we look internationally, it is evident that female values-led leadership has been notably more successful during this crisis. The prime example of how to respond belongs to Jacinda Ardern, the 39-year-old prime minister of New Zealand, who connected with her citizens through empathetic Facebook Live addresses and reacted quickly to lock down the country early on, which prevented the virus from spreading. On March 21, when New Zealand still had only 52 confirmed cases, Ms. Ahern informed citizens about the guidelines that the government would follow in ramping up its response. Her message was clear: “These decisions will place the most significant restrictions on New Zealanders’ movements in modern history. But it is our best chance to slow the virus and to save lives.” And it was compassionate: “Please be strong, be kind and unite against Covid-19.” By early June, New Zealand was declared free of the virus.
There were other examples of countries where swift and decisive action helped allay the impact of the virus and unite the nation, including South Korea, Taiwan, Germany, Greece and Iceland. Women, a minority among the world leaders, stood out as among the most effective and reassuring of leaders. They exhibited a combination of compassion, empathy and rigor, relying on science-based information and putting expertise over ego.
Tsai Ingwen, the President of Taiwan, has ably led her nation through the Coronavirus pandemic by enlisting all citizens in a national cooperative effort to control the pandemic. President Tsai responded quickly at the first sign of the new danger, keeping the virus under control and enabling her to send millions of face masks to the United States and Europe. Inspired by her leadership, the people of Taiwan fully cooperated and held the incidence of infection to under 500 with only 7 deaths.
Similarly, Chancellor Angela Merkel boldly led Germany to confront and staunch the coronavirus epidemic there, quickly getting testing underway. In Iceland, Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir led the government in offering free coronavirus testing for all and organizing a thorough tracking system. And Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon and her government provided helpful, nuanced strategy documents.
Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen of Denmark, Finland’s 34 year old Prime Minister Sanna Marin, and Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg are other women who have earned praise at home and abroad for their handling of the Covid-19 crisis. Ms. Solberg, for example, held a press conference for children, reassuring them and telling them it was okay to feel scared. These leaders have demonstrated that women take out their tool kit and lead with a sensitivity to the impact on all stakeholders in their society. With this kind of leadership, people feel included in the effort and are willing to collaborate and unite.
The leaders who have gained the respect and attention of their people, and who have succeeded in dulling the impact of the disease, share certain traits and approaches to leadership valuable for this pandemic, and for future crises that will inevitably come. A willingness to take quick and bold action, even when it carries political risk, is surely among the most important hallmarks of leadership in a crisis. It is now obvious that China’s politically motivated efforts to conceal the outbreak of Covid 19 in Wuhan and President Trump’s actions to downplay it for far too long, proved disastrous. Ms. Ardern, by contrast, chose, as she put it, to “go hard and go early.”
In recent history, we have seen other examples of women’s leadership in difficult times. The women of Rwanda, who suffered endless rape during the horrendous ethnic war, and bore children with HIV, are the very people who put their nation back together again despite the odds. Rwandan women led reconciliation efforts and healing. They turned their nation around and now 61% of their national parliamentarians are women. With the future of children and the whole society in mind, they have reversed decades of hatred and fear and united their nation to move forward toward a brighter future.
In America, the Black Lives Matter movement was started by women -- Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors. Today, in cities all over the world, people by the thousands have streamed into the streets to shout “enough of the abusive police violence against people of color, enough of the autocratic harsh way of policing.” People in cities all over the world are literally crying out for compassion, empathy, justice, and human rights.
Are empathy, inclusivity, and compassion important leadership skills? In times of crisis they demonstrably are. Citizens want to be reassured and know that their leaders care about them and are taking decisive action. People skills are an asset in a functional democracy where winning votes matters; they are even more so during a crisis. Leaders have to win the trust of their people. They have to inspire a sense of loyalty, and a cohesion of purpose. Certainly, some male leaders show these qualities. For example, former President Obama, who often works in a collaborative fashion and has publicly exhibited empathy, was able to enlist the hearts and minds of Americans in striving for a better society. For him, it wasn’t yes I can, but yes, we can. For this more compassionate leadership style, he has earned the support of some, yet reaped criticism from others more used to a forceful male dominant leadership.
Other elements of effective leadership include a respect for science, transparent messaging, constant updating of valid evidence. In Ireland, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar’s background as a doctor prompted him to start giving phone consultations half a day each week; and this open approach helped boost his previously flagging standing. Ms. Merkel’s background as a scientist is, by all accounts, a major factor in her credibility during the pandemic.
How does this compare with the approach of some strong male leaders?. As Helen Lewis wrote in The Atlantic: “Strongmen prosper as leaders because they promise certainty in uncertain times. They offer a simple enemy and present themselves as the only champion against it. The more control they have—by delegitimizing opposition leaders and the press—the better this strategy works. A country that elects a strongman, however,—or where a strongman can hold on to power once elections become a sham—is an already troubled country.”
In particular, Lewis cited some specific examples: “China’s Xi Jinping discovered this problem early in the outbreak, and tried to suppress doctors’ concerns about the new disease emerging in Wuhan. Leaders in Iran, Mexico, and the Philippines all appear to be desperately downplaying the extent of infections. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro dismissed the coronavirus as “a little flu or a bit of a cold” and attended an anti-lockdown protest in April.” President Trump downplayed the seriousness of the pandemic and waited a long time before taking action, stating, “No problem, we have this under control.” He has also been a proponent of early opening up, despite medical advice that it could be unsafe to do so. As a consequence of this bravado, our nation and these countries have seen surges of coronavirus cases and deaths. One can’t help but wonder where we would be if Hillary Clinton had been the American President now.
Women bring valuable skill sets to leadership that are usually seen as feminine qualities. These include collaboration, partnership, inclusiveness, longer-term thinking, intuitiveness in decision making, nurturing, and compassion— qualities that are vital for the health and well-being of individuals and societies. Women often have a heightened perception of what is occurring before it becomes visible. Perhaps this is genetically programmed into our DNA. This sensitivity helps us understand what is underneath tension or conflict, so that it can be healed and transformed, not just temporarily solved while continuing to fester. This is one reason women are considered good peace builders and why they need to be an equal part of all peace negotiations. Women are often the ones working at the grassroots and thus familiar with the local people and issues. Women know what it means to give life, to preserve life, and sustain life.
These times call for transformational leadership. Women have for centuries strived to protect the health and well being of our societies. Feminine wisdom comes from a centered, holistic and collaborative perspective that values partnership. Feminine leadership, in its true sense, is inclusive, generous, and communicative. In today’s complex, nonlinear world we are urgently in need of these qualities. We need women in equal numbers in legislatures, governments, corporate boards, higher education institutions, scientific laboratories, engineering hubs, tech labs, and a myriad of other places in order to right the direction of the human community. A critical balance of female and male minds and hearts is desperately needed to meet the crises of our time head on. In this 100th anniversary of American women getting the right to vote, women’s leadership is called for on a global scale.
Joanne Grady Huskey and Kimberly Weichel are cross cultural trainers, women’s leadership specialists and citizen diplomats who have worked on the forefront of building bridges between cultures and peoples for over 25 years.
Joanne Grady Huskey is an author, speaker and coach. She is Co-Founder and Vice President of iLive2Lead Young Women's Leadership Summit, Co-Founder of Global Adjustments (India); and of the American International School of Chennai (India).