The Best Leaders in a Crisis Are Those Who Put Others Before Their Egos

And it just so happens that women have been training that skill for years.

by Naomi Ryland, April 15, 2020
Confident looking woman

Leaders around the world want to know what it is that they can do to lead their organisations, and countries, through this crisis and come out just as strong – if not stronger – on the other end. There have been a few articles in the press and tweets on social media in the last week about whether women make better leaders in a crisis. The journalists look to the countries that seem to be handling the crisis well and note that many of them – Germany and New Zealand for example – are led by women. So is that the answer? Do we all have to become women? No, clearly not. Quite obviously there are some male leaders who are handling this situation very well and some female leaders who are handling it poorly. So what is the unifying feature of those who are handling it well? Humility. The ability to face their helplessness head-on instead of covering it with power-play and aggression. Or better: a lack of ego. And it just happens that this is a trait that many women have been honing for years.

When interviewing business leaders for our book, “Starting a Revolution: What we can learn from female entrepreneurs about the future of business”, we found there to be one fundamental factor when it comes to good leadership, and that is the extent to which leaders allow their ego - that is an unhealthy belief in their own importance and self-centered ambition - to rule their decision making. The leaders who put their purpose – that is in this case, getting the country or their organization safely through the crisis – above their own need for approval or recognition, are great leaders. It is as simple as that. They are great leaders when there is no crisis and they are excellent leaders in a crisis. There are plenty of studies to prove it. For anecdotal evidence, we only have to look at Trump.

We can also look to the UK. Here, watching the Ministers squirm day in and day out at the press conference is becoming excruciating. The number of times the word “unprecedented” has been uttered at those press conferences is, indeed, unprecedented. It is glaringly obvious to everybody that their main concern, during the press conference at least, is making it very clear that any issues are a) not their fault and b) completely under control because they are c) very strong leaders. Despite the fact that the UK deaths are considerably higher than most other European countries and rising, despite the fact that testing levels are still at a fifth of those of Germany and have been for the last few weeks, despite the fact that hospitals are dangerously low on PPE and several healthcare professionals have now died as a result. Ministers still refuse to acknowledge that they are struggling, that they have made mistakes, that they are human.

The “know-it-all” response from a leader, when it is alarmingly clear that they don’t (and can’t) know it all, only serves to raise levels of anxiety, reduce trust and nurture anger, in those who are looking to them for comfort. We know this, believe it or not, because Boris Johnson has proven it to us. Throughout the crisis, Johnson has been the epitome of egotistical leadership – suggesting that he was above scientific advice by claiming that he was still shaking hands with people even as late as early March, steadfastly insisting that we will “win the war”, and handing out instructions and orders, rather than empathy, when he did finally acknowledge the severity of the crisis. He was broadly criticized by media around the globe.

And then he got sick. For an entire week both he and his cabinet refused to acknowledge that he was really ill. Even when he was taken into hospital, they still insisted that he was fine, and that it was “precautionary”, lying to the nation in order to protect the image of him as a “strong leader”. Because in Boris’ world view “strong leaders” don’t get sick and don’t show weakness. Finally, when he was taken into intensive care, there was a notable shift. Boris was extremely ill and everybody knew about it. He had been forced to reveal his vulnerability. His absolute and most basic humanity. And suddenly, an outpouring of empathy from all corners – even from his political enemies. Suddenly everybody can relate to him. Suddenly everybody cares. His statement as he was released from intensive care a few days later, which contained only thanks for his care and an acknowledgement of how close he had come to losing his life, feel like the most genuine words that he has ever uttered. No bravado, no war rhetoric, no ego. Just gratitude and humility. And suddenly, the whole country feels comforted and is listening. He would be wise to stick to that tack.

Of course it is of some concern if you need to be on your deathbed to exhibit inspiring leadership. And as many articles have pointed out, women around the world – such as Angela Merkel and Jacinda Ardern – have managed it whilst still being healthy. So what does this have to do with being a woman? Whilst it is true that women are by no means all selfless and altruistic beings, it is true that women are generally socialized to think of others as well as themselves, to question their sense of entitlement and to prioritise relationship building over their own progression. As neuroscientist and AI specialist Vivienne Ming said, when we spoke to her for our book, “this is the work that women have often done and which, when nurtured, tends to result in measurably higher team productivity.” But, as she goes on, this work is rarely noticed, let alone rewarded. “In fact, we often only feel it when it is missing, when the culture of the company deteriorates, and we are left with nothing.”

And yet refined interpersonal skills, and a high degree of authenticity, are not only rarely rewarded, they are even often seen to be detrimental to “female empowerment”. How often are women taught in seminars to be more self-centred, dominant and loud – more egotistical even – in order to be better leaders? Whilst women should clearly not be limiting themselves in favour of others, there seems to be an argument for acknowledging that female leaders who are able to show vulnerability, humility and be somewhat selfless, may well bring something special to the table.

This crisis emphasizes even more strongly than ever that we should be teaching all leaders (i.e. everybody) to be more humble, to acknowledge our weaknesses and to be relatable on a basic human level. We need to learn to acknowledge emotions such as fear and sadness and create a safe space that enables others to do the same. We also need to learn to reward this kind of behavior in others (including our politicians). We need to fix the system, not the women.

Nobody would suggest that Ardern and Merkel are weak, meek or lacking in confidence. The ability to show vulnerability is, rather, a sign of great strength. Brene Brown, one of the world’s new generation of “Management Gurus” argues that the ability to show vulnerability is the single most important skill a great leader needs for these complex and insecure times. When writing some time ago about how what she refers to as “daring leaders” might react to a crisis she writes:

“During a time of difficult change and uncertainty, daring leaders might sit with their teams and say, these changes are coming in hard and fast, and I know there’s a lot of anxiety –I’m feeling it too, and it’s hard to work through. It’s hard not to take it home, it’s hard not to worry and it’s easy to want to look for someone to blame. I will share everything I can about the changes with you, as soon as I can. I want to spend the next forty-five minutes rumbling on how we’re all managing the changes. Specifically, what does support from me look like? What questions can I try to answer? Are there any stories you want to check out with me? And any other questions you have? I’m asking everyone to stay connected and lean into each other during this churn so we can really rumble with what’s going on. In the midst of all of this we still need to produce work that makes us proud. Let’s each write down one thing we need from this group in order to feel okay sharing and asking questions, and one thing that will get in the way.

I know that I would have a great deal more confidence in our political leaders if they would level with us at the press conferences in this way. I would respect them and relate to them, listen to them and feel comforted by them. This is the kind of strong leadership that I yearn for in these uncertain times.

Naomi Ryland is one of the founders of tbd*, the digital community for people working with purpose, and co-author of the book "Starting a Revolution: What we can learn from female entrepreneurs about the future of business".