Female bosses' non-traditional approach may set leadership style of future

October 28, 1990|By Bettijane Levine | Bettijane Levine,Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES -- Women, take heart; men, take note. A groundbreaking study previewed here shows that women have dramatically different leadership traits from those of men, and that the woman's approach may be the leadership style of the future.

Male executives tend to lead the traditional way: by command and control, according to the study conducted by Judith B. Rosener, a Ph.D. at the University of California, Irvine. They give an order, explain the reward for a job well done, and pretty much keep their power and knowledge to themselves.

Female executives, the study concludes, tend to lead in non-traditional ways: by sharing information and power. They inspire good work by interacting with others, by encouraging employee participation, and by showing how employees' personal goals can be reached as they meet organizational goals.

The research findings were based on the response of 355 women and 101 men, matched for position, type and size of organization.

The female style of leadership, identified for the first time in this study, may be especially appropriate for the corporate climate of the '90s and may be one reason more women will quickly achieve positions of great power in the next few years, said Ms. Rosener, a professor in UC Irvine's graduate school of management. Ms. Rosener was commissioned to do the study by the International Women's Forum and presented some of her conclusions at the IWF convention here last weekend.

"The male leadership model of command and control is not necessarily better or worse than the female model," Ms. Rosener said. "If there is a fire, for example, you need a command-control-type leader to order everyone out, with no questions asked."

In fact, the traditional male leadership style has been the only style for years at top corporations. No other style was thought to exist. It is still in place "at most Fortune 500-type" companies, Ms. Rosener says, where strict hierarchical structure means that all orders flow from the top and everyone below follows them.

But the hierarchical structure is beginning to look antique, Ms. Rosener says, in a world where corporations have international headquarters and decision-making is required at lower levels. It does not function as well in a global economy of multinational companies, service industries and fast-changing technological businesses, where it is impractical to have only a few top people from whom all planning and orders flow. It is perhaps even detrimental to the corporate good in situations where far-flung, lower-level employees need to make quick, accurate decisions, backed by knowledge and power to make the decisions.

Women leaders' tendency to share knowledge, power and responsibility may be what is needed next, she says. Trouble is, most executives in Fortune 500-type companies would still consider these to be non-managerial skills, not qualifications for the top job. That is because little research -- and no proof -- has been produced until now to document the existence and efficiency of differing leadership techniques.

In fact, Ms. Rosener says, studies until now have found that there is little or no difference between leadership styles of men and women who make it to the top.

"That's because researchers always looked at Fortune 500-type companies, where there are no women. And any woman who made it in a firm like that would have to do so by emulating the male management style," Ms. Rosener said.

Other studies focus on midlevel management types, she said, which gives no clue about how women really function when they have made it to the top.

Ms. Rosener said her study, which will be featured in the November-December issue of the Harvard Business Review, also found that women "are enthusiastic about work; they think it is 'fun.' Men describe work as work."

Among other significant findings:

* Top executive women earn about the same as men. The mean income for women studied is $140,000 per year; the mean for men is $136,000. This contradicts most other studies' findings that women are paid less than men.

* Sixty-eight percent of the women studied were married. This is inconsistent with previous studies' findings, which indicate that top executive women sacrifice their personal lives in pursuit of success.

Ms. Rosener says the hopeful news from this study is that high-achieving women can have it all. But they will have to find a company that appreciates the female leadership style -- or start their own company.

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