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Women as leaders

Updated Wednesday 25th January 2006

In the past, organisations have denied women positions of power. We explore how this discrimination led to a leadership revolution in this OU Business School course extract

Condoleezza Rice Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC

Some people are leaders, motivating and inspiring us in ways that others struggle to. What is it that separates those who lead and those who manage?

One view is that mangers perform transactions, and leaders bring about transformations. You could think of the transformational leader as managing meaning and the transactional leader as managing a series of exchanges or transactions. The distinctions are as follows.

Transactional Leadership
The transactional leader influences others by appealing to self-interest, primarily through the exchange of rewards and services. The relationship between the leader and the follower is seen as a series of rational exchanges that enable each to reach their own goals.

Transactional leaders supply all the ideas and use rewards as their primary source of power. Followers comply with the leader when it’s in their own interest. The relationship continues as long as the reward is desirable to the follower, and both the leader and the follower see the exchange as a way of achieving their own ends.

Transformational Leadership
While the transactional leader motivates subordinates to perform as expected, the transformational leader inspires followers to exceed expectations. Transformational leaders motivate followers to work for goals that go beyond immediate self-interest, where what is right and good becomes important. These leaders transform the needs, values, preferences and aspirations of followers. They do this so that the interests of the wider group replace self-interest.

The table below summarises the key differences.

Transactional and Transformational Leaders
Transactional Leader Transformational Leader
Conditional reward
Contracts exchange of rewards for effort, promises rewards for good performance, recognises accomplishments
Provides vision and sense of mission, instils pride, gains respect and trust
Management by exception (active)
Watches and searches for deviations from rules or standards, takes corrective action
Communicates high expectations, uses symbols to focus efforts, expresses important purposes in simple ways
Management by exception (passive)
Intervenes only if standards are not met
Intellectual stimulation
Promotes intelligence, rationality and careful problem-solving
Abdicates responsibility, avoids making decisions
Individualised consideration
Gives personal attention, treats each employee individually, coaches and advises

Much of the early influential research on leadership was conducted in larger companies, usually in the USA. Not surprisingly, the surveys predominantly studied male leaders.

From the late 1970s onwards the feminist movement began to insist that there were differences in style between men and women’s leadership. Consequently women’s styles began to be studied, especially in comparison to leadership by men. The early model emphasised male behaviour as the norm against which both men and women were to be judged.

It became clear that transactional leadership could be distinguished from transformational leadership. As a result the emphasis shifted, and more work was undertaken to compare the differences between the performances of men and women.

In 1990 Judy Rosener, a leading researcher into leadership, published a paper in the Harvard Business Review entitled ‘Ways women lead’. The survey detailed the results of a survey of men and women leaders. This was a significant milestone in the development of transformational leadership, and in validating a feminist approach.

The men were more likely than the women to describe themselves in ways that characterise ‘transactional leadership’ (job performance as a series of transactions with subordinates)…The women respondents on the other hand described themselves in ways that characterise ‘transformational leadership’ – getting subordinates to transform their own self-interest into the interest of the group through concern for a broader goal.

In general, men’s power came from position and formal authority. They achieved goals through reward and punishment. Women, on the other hand, saw their power as deriving from personality, interpersonal skills, hard work and contacts. Men’s power-base was therefore given them by the organization, women’s by their personal qualities.

"inevitably, such ground-breaking findings were challenged"

Inevitably, such ground-breaking findings were challenged. Then confirmation came in 1994 from Bernard Bass and Bruce Avolio’s survey of 582 male and 219 female followers of 150 male and 79 female managers reported in an article ‘Shatter the glass ceiling: women make better managers’.

The conclusions seemed to be that women had no choice other than to act transformationally. Denied access to organizational position and authority, they were driven to use their natural skills to the full. They might also have had an advantage in being, by nature, more inclined towards nurture than men are.

We now realise that these transformational skills are needed when leading fast-changing organizations. Indeed, you might think that the spread of transformational leadership will inevitably lead to the feminising of leadership behaviour. However, it seems likely that with transformational leadership as the norm, all leaders will strive to exercise it, and it will loose its apparent gender bias.

"women get better results"

In case you think this article has an underlying feminist polemic, it is desirable to emphasise that these assertions are grounded in research that shows that women get better results. To return to Bass and Avolio:

Women managers, on average, were judged more effective and satisfying to work for, as well as more likely to generate extra effort from their people. Women were also rated higher than men on three of the Four I’s comprising transformational leadership.

These Four I’s are:

  • Inspirational motivation – the leader using symbols and emotional appeals to increase awareness of the organization’s vision.
  • Idealised influence (or charisma) – people identify with and model themselves on a leader whom they respect and trust.
  • Individualised considerations – people are treated individually but equitably.
  • Intellectual stimulation – people are encouraged and supported to think about and challenge what they do and how they do it.

By ‘shattering the glass ceiling’ more women are now in the most senior management posts in large multinationals – and commanding multi-million pound salaries.

About this article

This article is taken from Leading for Results (B572), a course from the Open University Centre for Continuing Professional Development.


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