Transformational and Feminine Leadership: In praise of empathy, sensitivity, and authenticity in the workplace

Transformational and Feminine Leadership
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Transformational and Feminine Leadership: In praise of empathy, sensitivity, and authenticity in the workplace
Sita Sumrit, PhD
Head, Poverty Eradication and Gender Division ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community Department

“Be a man.” “Toughen up.” These are phrases women often hear. From everyday life to the professional realm, we are reminded more often than needed to be equal to men. This has set us up to a fallacy that men and masculine qualities are the benchmarks for excellence and success in life.

In the workplace, how often do we see women try to adopt masculine traits, speaking “tough” to appear more confident at meetings, or enforcing carrot and stick approaches of the fiefdom era to reward and punish staff.

That is certainly not their fault. Society’s failure to transform leadership paradigms and organisational cultures and make everyone understand that “to emulate men” is not the way forward.

Promoting women in decision-making and leadership roles has gained some traction in policymaking and practices, particularly pertaining to gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. While it is encouraging, progress has been sluggish, and the understanding of what women’s leadership means remains vague.

An illuminating study on women and leadership by KPMG, “Advancing the Future of Women in Business” (2019), suggests that women feel more pressure than men to prove themselves in corporate environments. Women also report feeling a greater need to adapt their leadership styles. While leaders, women and men, strive for authenticity, they pause at the idea of being perceived as overly empathetic or emotional, qualities that tend to be associated with weakness.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the new normal work arrangement have contributed significantly to the reexamination of leadership, resilience and adaptability of the organisation and individuals alike. The pandemic has warned us that adaptability is paramount to any organisation’s growth, evolution process and mere survival. It has urged us that in times of crises where no one, including leaders in the organisation is exempted from its plight and peril, what we need is transformational and NOT transactional leadership.

Transformational leadership is defined as a leadership style in which leaders encourage, inspire, and motivate employees to innovate and create change that will help shape the future of the organisation. Transformational leaders establish themselves as role models by gaining their trust and confidence. Such leaders mentor and empower subordinates, encourage them to develop their full potential while establishing an emotional connection with the staff. 

n these times of uncertainty and disruption, there is a pressing need for managers to lead with humility and empathy. Many of us struggle to work from home while caring for our health and families. Others are unable to be with loved ones due to limited mobility. This is not the time to exert hierarchy, rigidity, and punitive measures at work. Throughout history, women are told that they are too soft, kind and caring to be leaders, but the notion that someone who is not kind and caring can lead effectively is at odds with the current reality and its challenges.

We have learned and continue to learn that effective leaders do not emanate from one mold of command and control, although traditional organisations perpetutate this notion. Women, who manage to climb the leadership ladder, then have to comply with such a system. Gender equality and an appreciation for nuances are needed for leadership effectiveness and to perform well; leadership emergence is required to move up the ladder.

Being development-focused rather than goal-oriented, embracing limitations, fostering strength-based responsibilities and being flat in the way one structures and runs the team are not Achilles’ heels. The same goes with wearing dresses and walking in heels in the work environment. 

Both transformational and feminine leadership models are the fruits of trial and error. They carry an advocacy message for leaders, especially women, to nurture their qualities and find their own ways and express their own voices. While being construed as a management style characterised by more feminine quality, soft skills and behaviours such as empathy, effective communication, and democratic or team-styled work environment, feminine leadership is not only for females. The management and leadership approach is a growing trend that has proven beneficial to organisations in face of adversity and at difficult junctures, especially those that vow for inclusiveness and sustainability for all.

Of course, transformational and feminine leadership may not replace all other forms of leadership, but they do help all of us rebalance our views of the world and our ways of work. They prompt us that equality is not just about allowing women to be in leadership positions but also about changing the rules of the game. These rules allow for a fundamental identity shift in the way we see ourselves as leaders, and the way others perceive us as leaders (or not).

For as long as we remember, feminine qualities have been disallowed and criticised in all aspects of masculinedominated systems and structures. Again, feminine qualities are not just for women. They are also for men who try to find their voices, for authenticity as they try to lead people through the same qualities.

We shall harness nuances, malleability and acceptability in 21st century leadership models that are conducive to equality and not hierarchy. We will promote people into leadership roles when they are competent, not just confident, when they are prolific, rather than political, and when they are authentic, not simply authoritative. By doing so, we will achieve not only organisational objectives but also attain the higher values of empathy, sensitivity and humility that are endemic rather than foreign to the real ethos of leadership for both women and men.