The most effective leaders, we’ve long known, have more competence in emotional intelligence. It’s not your college degrees or IQ that make you an outstanding leader, but emotional intelligence abilities. Leaders who get the best results tend to show more strengths in key competencies in emotional intelligence.
Now the news comes that women, on average, are better at almost all these crucial leadership skills than are men on average. The two competencies where men and women had the least difference were emotional self-control and positive outlook. The largest difference was for self-awareness.
The other areas where women on average scored better than men:
- coaching and mentoring
- influence and inspiring others
- conflict management and teamwork
- empathy and organizational awareness
- focus on achieving goals.
These abilities have been identified repeatedly by companies themselves when they look at their own leaders to generate a model of the abilities that set the star performers apart from the rest. These competencies of the stars are what leading companies look for in the people they hire, promote, and groom for leadership.
This sounds like a wake up call to any organization: you are ignoring a critical factor in your own success if you lag in recruiting women to leadership positions – and most companies are in that boat.
The data showing a leadership advantage in women are very strong, based on 360-degree ratings of 55,000 men and women using the well-validated Emotional and Social Competence Inventory (a tool I co-developed with my colleague Richard Boyatzis, professor in the business school at Case Western University, and the Hay Group, a division of Korn Ferry).
But just as companies need to avoid a bias favoring men for leadership positions, the answer does not lie in an across-the-board bias favoring women instead. The smart way to use this finding lies in spotting the right women for leadership.
The key phrase in interpreting these findings is “on average.” Any broad comparison of men and women on a behavior like emotional intelligence yields two largely overlapping bell curves, with women’s average ratings higher than men. But because these curves overlap that means any given man might be as effective in, say, achieving goals or teamwork as any woman.
You need to evaluate the individual, not just look to gender as a guide. If you do, more women are likely to end up in the pool most qualified for leadership. Of course men high in emotional intelligence should also be ripe candidates.
Given the current under-promotion of talented women to the top ranks, the bottom line here: organizations would be more effective if they strove for gender equality in the higher ranks.
And they would do even better if they spot the right women – and so end up with the very best people in their circle of leaders.