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Transfemational leadership – why a feminine approach is absolutely essential for success in 2011

Welcome to a new year, resplendent with new opportunities.  I love this time of year, when we can choose in our work and in our life what we want the year ahead to look like, what we’d like to achieve, how we’d like to lead.  To this end 2011 could look remarkably the same as last year or the year before… or it could also look very different.

Earlier this week a friend relayed a conversation with a peer, about their business strategy and plans in 2011.  They spoke about the challenges that lay ahead and how they will respond.  And in the end it all came down to one question: what is transformational leadership?  Her colleague – an experienced senior executive in his early fifties barely battered an eyelid: “better, stronger, faster” he quipped.  Darwin’s theory of evolution in the business context: organisational success, he surmised, is also about survival of the fittest.  Those with more clout will outrun their competitors, weather the storms, survive to live another day.  Yet I’m not so sure…

My opinion was not dissimilar in the past; it’s certainly the tried and tested approach of the business school case studies and the powerhouse organisations we’ve built our careers with.  But today, in the current context, my feeling is that transformational leadership needs to be something different. Maybe what we need is transfemational leadership…

Over the Christmas break I’ve been catching up on my reading (is it just me, or does everyone end up with a pile of unopened journals to the side of their desk by December?).  The downtime is also a chance to channel surf my way around the news of the world and there I’ve seen signs aplenty that the world has changed, probably forever. Headlines focused on an Australian rebel with a cause and his wikileaks cyber war, on Ireland’s bailout as another European economy falls to its knees in the second wave of the GFC tsunami and on a 25 year-old who controls a social network valued at $50 billion.  Three random headlines?  Or three more signs of changing sentiment?

Although history has a habit of repeating itself, my feeling is that the world of business we’ve built our careers on has changed and will never be the same.  My feeling is that transformational leadership in this context is not so much about winning the race, but redefining it altogether.  It’s not so much about outrunning the competitor, but changing direction, rewriting the rules and rebuilding the team.  It’s about innovation, resilience and adapting… and I think moving from the traditional, masculine approach of “better, stronger, faster” towards a more feminine approach that encourages collaboration, questioning and dialogue to bring out the very best solutions to business challenges. This is transfemational leadership.

The good news in all of this is that for organisations seeking to compete in this brave new world, the answer to most of the current challenges lies in a resource they have ready and abundant access to: women.

Why are women the solution?  Think about your own situation, your own experiences, your own team… and also what you see around you in your communities, parliament and public forums.  Do you notice any differences between men and women, the way they work, and how they go about creating value and solving problems?

Women form the majority of graduates in most business and professional degrees and have done for more than a decade.  In commerce and economics, women comprise 57% of graduates and in the law it’s 68% and rising.  Women are great at applying knowledge and thinking to solving complex problems – just the thing for a knowledge economy seeking to innovate and challenge outdated practices. Sure the buff and bulk of men was perfect for the industrial revolution and manufacturing, but for many developed economies this is not where economic expansion lies. 

Women are the ones more likely to ask the “dumb” questions, that aren’t really dumb at all but are those questions on everyone’s mind but rarely on the tip of their tongues, that are the questions that need to be asked and that underpin the conscience of the business.  Is it just my perception or are there more women whisteblowers than men – and could this be because they’re not afraid to ask or point out the “dumb things” going on around them?

And if we are to redefine the game, how well equipped is your workforce to deal with the change?  Having led change programs in some of Australia’s largest organisations, I know how difficult it can be to work through the process.  If you’re planning to implement change in your business in 2011, you’ll be interested in this research by Accenture that shows women are more adaptable and resilient, and therefore better able to cope with the change you’re about to embark on.

This isn’t about replacing all of the men in our corporations with women, but it is about opening ourselves up to the opportunity that women present, of men leaning to be ok with a more  feminine way of doing things and of being brave enough to challenge the status quo.  Having access to women though is important, and I’m absolutely confident those organisations with more women in their leadership ranks will have an advantage over those without.

So… with this in mind… what will 2011 look like for you, your career and your business… and how do you plan to lead the transformation?

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