Professor Susan R. Madsen: “Strengthening women to learn to lead is a critical imperative today”


At the conference 'Women Leaders – Agents of Change in Europe', organised for the 30th Anniversary of the IEDC-Bled School of Management, she will exclusively present the research findings of her latest book ‘Women and Leadership Around the World’ published in 2015.

How would you describe the leadership style of women and what do you recognise as the main differences to the leadership style men?

The research still says that women tend to be more focused on cooperation, teamwork, communication, nurturing, inclusiveness, relationships, flexibility, collaboration, and caring. However, it is important to note that all women don’t have all of these qualities and some men have also many of these qualities. But, as a society across cultures and countries, we expect these things more from women than from men. We assume men will be more task-driven, results-focused, stronger in various ways, and focused on power. We all make assumptions that “all” women and “all” men act certain ways, but we are finding that successful women leaders have a wonderful mix of these feminine and masculine behaviors—but they are authentic. This means that they are not specifically “trying” to act like men—it is just their natural style of leadership—which works well. The latest studies have showed that women in top position are task-driven and results-oriented, but they are also relationship focused and other things that are more feminine. For thousands of years, leadership has been seen to embody more masculine qualities, but some of the most recent research—for example, The Athena Doctrine book and research, says that feminine values are ascendant and more useful in a world that is increasingly social, interdependent and transparent.

Can you name a few women leaders from different sectors / environments and explain the drivers behind their leadership journey?

I think the best place to glance at is Faith’s and my article in “The European Business Review.” You will see we mention a number of women leaders and actually have chapters on Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, and others. These women each have such a unique story of leadership and leadership development as well as culture, upbringing, opportunities and so forth. Each is so different and unique—but there are motivational themes that cross all of them. In some of my earlier research I studied the motivations of university presidents and US governors, and this was similar with educational and government leaders in other countries—I think the list may be different for business leaders—the ones I compiled this list with were public service type positions. Here is what I found were the top motivators or “drivers” as you mentioned for them to become and stay in top leadership (these are in order of most frequently stated):
1. To make a difference
2. To positively influence
3. To serve the community and help others
4. To make things happen
5. To fulfill accomplishment and achievement needs
6. To fulfill drives and ambition
7. To do what I am meant to do in life
8. To have power
9. To do interesting, exciting, and meaningful work
10. To learn, develop, and grow (liked change)
11. To get great satisfaction from my work
12. To have challenges and important responsibilities

In your latest book ‘Women and Leadership Around the World’ you dedicated a special chapter, ‘The Leadership Development Journey of One of Slovenia’s Most Influential Women’, to IEDC President Professor Danica Purg. How do you perceive her?

I absolutely loved conducting in-depth interviews with Professor Danica Purg a few years ago for this chapter. It was a wonderful experience being able to learn so much about her life and how she developed leadership throughout the years. I have done many similar interviews with women – US governors, US university president and global leaders in government, education, and business around the world. Yet, Professor Purg’s interviews stood out to me for many reasons. For example, she had such amazing leadership development experiences while she was growing up that I believed really provided her with confidence and other leadership skills, like taking risks, standing up for what she believed and leading other people, even as a child. Her stories are engaging and inspiring, and really give us all ideas on how to develop leadership in girls and young women. She is truly an inspiration to me. She has courage and steps forward when things need to be done—like pulling together this seminal conference for leaders in Eastern Europe. There is power when strong women meet together to collaborate. I felt it was truly an honour to write a chapter in this book on Professor Purg’s leadership development journey.

What does strengthening women leaders around the world bring to todays and the future society?

There are hundreds of studies now published that discuss the benefits of having women in top management and leadership positions in any type of organisation and in society as well. For example, a host of studies have found that when women are in leadership teams or boards, there is improved financial performance for the company or organisation. Research has found that when women are included there may be increased profitability, better economic growth, faster debt reduction, lower risk of insolvency, better business deals, less risky bids and much more. Studies have also shown that organisational climates are strengthened, CSR and organisational reputation increases, talent is better leveraged, and innovation and collective intelligence is also enhanced. More specifically, when women are on boards and in leadership, there tends to be higher employee satisfaction, a smaller gender pay gap, lower corporate fraud, more corporate social responsibility initiatives, greater creativity and problem solving capabilities, stronger team decision making, and reduced groupthink. These are only a few of the benefits of having women in these key positions, but it is clear that gender and other types of diversity are critical these days in true business and organisational success—this means in government and communities as well. Strengthening girls and women to learn to lead is a critical imperative these days for local, national, and global leadership and success. Organisations need to be strategic and proactive to make this happen. I look forward to discussing this more in my keynote in April!