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Strength Plus Sensitivity Equals Leadership

Gender stereotypes influence our views of male and female leaders, according to a new study that has implications for the current presidential race.
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Do we look for strength or sensitivity in a leader? The short answer is “both,” but a more detailed look at the topic reveals the tricky path women in power need to tread.

In a new paper published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, four female researchers – Stefanie K. Johnson of Colorado State University, Susan Elaine Murphy and Rebecca J. Reichard of Claremont McKenna College and Selamawit Zewdie of the University of Wisconsin – examine the way specific stereotypes of men and women affected their likability and effectiveness as leaders.

Their key conclusion, in the words of Murphy and Reichard: “Strong women were liked less than strong men, and strong and sensitive men were liked most of all.” Furthermore, “Female leaders were seen as effective when they were both strong and sensitive, while male leaders need only be strong to be perceived as effective.”

In other words, employees (and, perhaps, voters) are open to women leaders, so long as they conform to what is seen as a feminine style of leadership – that is, one that emphasizes forming and maintaining productive relationships. So long as they embrace that approach, more “masculine” features such as assertiveness are also welcome.

For male leaders, in contrast, strength is the number one trait followers look for, with sensitivity a desirable (but not essential) secondary trait.

This need to balance feminine and masculine qualities provides some insight into the tightrope Sen. Hillary Clinton is walking as she attempts to become the first female President of the United States. Her reluctance to admit mistakes presumably reflects her perceived need to project strength. But the researchers note that her campaign floundered until her now-famous teary moment in New Hampshire, where her sensitive side emerged.

Murphy and Reichard’s specific advice to the candidates: “John McCain needs to focus on his sensitive side, Barack Obama must prove that he has strength to balance his keen sensitivity, and Hillary must continue to delicately balance her strong and sensitive sides for the electorate.”

If either Obama or McCain can project both strength and sensitivity, they have the upper hand, according to this research. As the paper states: “The results from these studies support the idea that when all else is equal, male leaders are generally perceived as more effective than female leaders.”