Are Women Better Leaders?


_By Nusair Teli (NutellaMonster2201)

Benazir Bhutto


“Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.” -Warren Bennis, Forbes 2012

Before I begin I should say that, I like to and have thought of myself as a feminist. As Chimimanda Ngozi Adidie put it, I am a person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes. That being said, do I believe that women make superior leaders in comparison to men, all the time? No, key words being all the time. However, I do firmly believe, that women have to work significantly harder to be taken seriously, in all roles considered to be traditionally masculine. Leadership is a prime example.

As pointed out by Bennis, leadership has been described as the capacity to translate vision into reality with the intention to bring about change. It is never specified as a male only role, however, female leaders are scarce in contrast to men. While the number is increasing so that we have a Sirimavo Bandaranaike in Sri Lanka, a Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan and a Margret Thatcher in the United Kingdom (UK), examples of men in leadership are still more plentiful. Alexander the Great, Barak Obama, Napoleon, Mahatma Ghandhi, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, the list is expansive and extensive, dwarfing the list of female leaders.


If we are to use examples, women have great potential to become exceptional leaders. To understand this, lets first understand what is the purpose of a leader. What does a leader do? A leader leads; quite self-explanatory right? But not everyone can lead. How can you if no one follows you? And what makes people follow you? What qualities and tools does a leader need to be a leader?

 John C. Maxwell in his book, ‘The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership’ uses a list of 21 laws to illustrate what a person needs to know in order to be an effective leader. Out of these 21, the first one that struck me as extremely interesting was what Maxwell had termed ‘The Law of Empowerment’. As he points out empowering others can be a powerful thing. Sharing the power allows you to help others (your followers) to grow, which in turn helps you grow. You are able to achieve more collectively than one person alone could. Empowering others, being on their side, helping them to realise their potential encourages people to follow you in return for your support. In others words, you inspire them to be the best they can be.

Maxwell also mentions a ‘Law of Sacrifice’. Abiding by this law requires a leader to make sacrifices for their cause. This is said to be at the heart of leadership, without which, there is no success. He uses the example of Martin Luther King Jr. to illustrate this. Mr King was fully committed to his goal, standing up peacefully to a system that was constantly trying to exclude people like him. So much so that he gave up everything that he had and gave it up willingly. 

By doing so, he influenced millions, not just at the time, but the impact of his sacrifice is still felt today. He gave the American Civil Rights movement the momentum it needed to reach its ultimate goal; change. Without him, I doubt the United States would have been able to vote an African-American President into office in 2008.  

Maxwell also points out that beyond his willingness to sacrifice everything for his goal, Mr King was also able to emotionally connect with his followers. He was able to and still continues to inspire people. Some advocates of traditional management would say that the chief executive of a firm inspires its employees to work towards the company’s objectives. Let us envision who an executive is traditionally. Think a middle-aged, sharply dressed man with the ‘Mad Men’ haircut. In other words, an authoritarian, autocratic figure who is emotionally detached. This man is in charge of your pay cheque and can be both a help or a hindrance towards your success in the organization.

Now, let us remove success in the organization and better pay from the equation. Would you or anyone still follow this man? Would anyone have followed Mr King if he had said “I have an agenda”? The prospects of success and more money can motivate a person to work harder but they are not enough to inspire.

What was it about Mr King that made him inspirational? Well, his most famous words are “I have a dream”.  In order to inspire people, you need to be relatable for them. Saying that you have a dream shows that you are like them, you too dream. With this, you become more approachable, relatable and ultimately more human. Maxwell describes this as the “Law of Buy-In”. You become the message. People will follow you when they consider you to be genuine and establishing an emotional link helps with that.

We know that leaders, among other things, make sacrifices, empower others and inspire people, all of which leads to the realization of a vision. Interestingly enough, there was a lack of female examples in Maxwell’s work. That does not however mean that women are in anyway less capable. As I mentioned earlier, there are several examples of strong female leaders available to us. I even mentioned a few names, among them was Benazir Bhutto.

Benazir Bhutto was the first and only woman to hold the office of Prime Minister in Pakistan. She was also the first woman to lead a Muslim country. She was also the daughter of another former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Like Mr King, she also sacrificed a lot for her cause. She, much like her father before her, fought to strengthen democracy in Pakistan, so much so that she too, like Mr King, was assassinated while still in pursuit of her goal.

Benazir Bhutto

During her lifetime, she saw two periods of exile, once following the imprisonment, trial and eventual execution of her father, and once following the end of her second term as Prime Minister. Yet, she remained committed to her cause. Much like King, she was able to maintain a strong emotional link with her followers. In many of her speeches she referred to the crowd as her brothers and sisters, her fellow country-men thus creating an image for people to buy into.

While she came from a privileged background, she was able to inspire and mobilize the common man to work towards one cause. Democracy in Pakistan has been hindered repeatedly. Bhutto’s own father was removed from office by means of a military coup. That coup also marked the beginning of a period of great hardship and struggle for Bhutto herself, being imprisoned and eventually forced into exile. In spite of all the hardship she suffered, she still remained willing to work towards a democratic and liberal Pakistan, even if it meant becoming the target of several assassination attempts.

Another example of an effective female leader is the current CEO of PepsiCo, Indira Nooyi. While with Bhutto, the concepts of inspiration and sacrifice were readily visible, Nooyi functions more as an empowering leader. She took the reins of PepsiCo following a string of successful years, however the year she took over, new regulations were enforced and the North American market had begun to slow down, creating problems for PepsiCo. It was during this time that it became apparent that a change was needed. At this point, she could have decided to strip costs and streamline operations in order to start making a profit for a few years. However, she instead chose to build up the capabilities of the company. In December 2013, while addressing the audience gathered to honour 25 Greatest Global Living Indians in New Dehli, she stated that greatness does not come from the position but by helping others to get to that position. Essentially, she is abiding by the law of empowerment.

In the years that Nooyi has headed PepsiCo, the company has flourished. The gap between its share price and that of Coca-Cola has begun to decrease, revenue is rising and brand image has strengthened. This, in her, emphasizes the main purpose of a leader, to translate vision into reality, something that she has in common with Benazir Bhutto. Bhutto, through her many struggles was able to push forward democracy in Pakistan, playing a major role in the ending of Pakistan’s most recent military regime, that of Parvez Musharraf.

Indira Nooyi

However, were these women able to be such effective leaders because they were women?

While looking up the qualities of a leader, even in Maxwell’s overwhelmingly masculine representation of leadership, not once were gender restrictions mentioned. In fact, he used former United States secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice as an example to illustrate the effectiveness of the law of sacrifice.  Furthermore, particularly if we look at the lives of both Benazir Bhutto and Martin Luther King Jr., we cannot say that either’s gender contributed to their effectiveness as a leader. Being as far removed as possible from each other as they are, they both still were able to inspire millions of people to struggle towards a common goal. Both were willing to make sacrifices, regardless of the effect on them. Both left a lasting legacy, and years after their deaths both continue to inspire people.

In the very beginning I mentioned that do I believe that women make better leaders all the time, putting emphasis on the phrase ‘all the time’. What I meant by this was that, there are certain things at which women are credited with as to being better than men. They are said to be more emotional, thus creating an emotional connection with others could be easier for them. They have been described to be more nurturing which can lead one to assume that they could be more adept at empowering others. However, with all of that being said, several examples of men fulfilling g those roles also come to mind. For example, the link that King had with his followers or Steve Jobs nurturing the talents of his employees at Apple.

Thus women are not necessarily better leaders than men, although they are definitely just as capable. However, women are definitely rarer leaders. The underrepresentation of women in Maxwell’s work and in many other political, social and economic fronts is testament to that. Benazir Bhutto is still the only woman to ever have been Prime Minister in Pakistan. During the period between 1960 and 2009, 71 women worldwide have been elected or have ascended to national leader status while at that date, only 16 out of 192 countries had a female president or prime minister.

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