Take a minute and think of the leader who handled the Covid crisis the best. If you've been following the international news at all, chances are excellent you thought of New Zealand's Jacinda Ardern. She has the advantage of governing a tiny, isolated nation, but still she's managed to keep her country nearly Covid-free and appear compassionate while doing it.
There are several other contenders for the honor -- the leaders of Taiwan, Korea, Finland, and Germany, for example. What do a striking number of them have in common? Many are women.
Is this just a fluke of geography and circumstance, or is there something to the idea that women outperformed men when it comes to leading through this crisis? Recent research from consultancy Zenger/Folkman highlighted on the HBR blogs looked at this question in a business context and came to a stark conclusion. Your hunch that women have been better leaders in the pandemic isn't wrong.
Empathy wins in a crisis
Rather than examine which countries have fared best in the pandemic and who leads them (other studies have examined this question), this research team opted to comb through their database of more than 60,000 360-degree reviews of business leaders to compare how executives were assessed before and after the crisis struck. Did one gender see a greater bump in their colleagues' esteem after the virus marauded around the world?
Women leaders, they found, tend to slightly outperform men all the time. But the difference grew larger during the crisis. "The gap between men and women in the pandemic is even larger than previously measured, possibly indicating that women tend to perform better in a crisis," sum up Zenger/Folkman's Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman.
When they dug deeper into the data to explore exactly why women had seen this spike in their ratings, their findings boiled down to a simple conclusion: Women leaders are seen as more empathetic.
"Female leaders expressed more awareness of fears that followers might be feeling, concern for well-being, and confidence in their plans," they write, noting that another recent study of governors came to very similar conclusions.
Time to adjust our expectations for leaders
There are several ways to take these findings. Female leaders could see it as a vote of confidence that confirms their unique value. Male leaders might take a lesson in the qualities most valued by employees in difficult times. While those in the middle of an executive search could give a longer look to the women candidates on their list.
But perhaps the most useful takeaway of this research is as yet another reminder of one of the most often studied but frequently forgotten truths about leadership -- qualities like charm and confidence that help people rise to leadership are not necessarily the same ones that help them excel once they're on top, where empathy, humility, and self-knowledge are key. Introverts also overperform in a crisis, for instance.
That indicates that the brashness and certainty that can scream "leadership potential" may distract us from the vulnerability, flexibility, and empathy that actually help leaders navigate tough times. So next time you're wondering what a great leader looks like, maybe picture someone less like a blustering bro charming his way to a sale and more like gentle Jacinda Ardern piloting her country safely through Covid.