Carol Gilligan: Why Female Leadership Traits Are More Important Than Ever In Defining What's Next

This article was originally published on Forbes.

Six months into this pandemic, the future of business is still murky. Companies are struggling to find footing. Everyone wants answers. They’re looking for a leader to redefine and transform the workplace so that it can weather any storm. To put it plainly, we need leaders to focus less on their individual ideas regarding how to retain people and protect culture and focus more on cultivating an organization that has an esprit de corps that can’t be copied.

By definition, you would think that any “leader” could do that. They’d rise to the occasion and take over the wheel. But we all know that’s not what happens in the real world. Some individuals are emerging as true leaders while others are steering into the rocks. What is it that makes leadership effective, especially in times of crisis? Are there certain traits that recruiting teams should be prioritizing? Are there certain mindsets that we need to promote in order to best position our companies for what lies ahead?

To answer those questions and to better understand what we need from leaders today, we need to take a step back and think about how leadership and decision-making have been traditionally defined.

Types Of Leadership Traits

In 1958, American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg published his theory of six stages of moral development, which says the best ethical decisions are made based on justice, rule and hierarchy. While Kohlberg’s research was highly influential at the time, it focused exclusively on how middle-aged white men made decisions. Ultimately, Kohlberg’s findings were challenged, including by his own Ph.D. student, Carol Gilligan.

Gilligan went on to conduct her own research, this time utilizing a diverse set of participants. She found that women — or more specifically, individuals with strong female leadership traits — tend to be more relational in their decision-making. What I mean by that is that when they make decisions, they are not as concerned with justice, rule and hierarchy. Instead, they consider how their decisions will affect other people and how their decisions will manifest in the real world.

Gilligan showed that in the workplace, individuals using the traditional masculine approach make decisions that are linear and transactional for the benefit of those in the C-suite and the board room. Individuals using a more feminine approach make decisions differently: They think about the broader impacts of their decisions. They think about customers. They think about specific people in specific departments. They think about the company as a whole.

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