Johnson Sirleaf

President of Liberia since 2006, listed by Forbes in 2014 as 70th most powerful woman in the world

Many years ago I saw Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia (the first woman to lead an African nation, voted in in 2006) speak at a Women’s event in London. A Harvard Graduate and a Grandmother, I thought she was amazing and I have been interested in her progress since then. She has been doing such a great job in repairing her broken war-ravaged country and was the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. She shared the prize with two other women, one of whom led the women’s peace movement in Liberia. Reading her acceptance speech moved me to tears. She has been voted in again for another 6 year term after successfully steering her country to a peaceful democracy.

In her speech she said “Surely there is no place for a continuing belief that leadership qualities belong to only one gender.”

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf represents a new kind of leader in the world.
According to new research presented by  Katherine W. Phillips (the Paul Calello Professor of Leadership and Ethics in the Management Division at Columbia Business School) just 15 % of parliamentary representatives around the world are women. As for presidents and national leaders, the number is only 18 now (about 10%), and that is a number that  has quadrupled since 1960 (when Sri Lanka’s Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the first elected female head of state in the modern world.)

Joanna Barsh, Director of McKinsey in New York, says that some parts of the male corporate management structure still hold an old mindset thinking that there are top jobs that just can’t be done by a woman … and that women are far too emotional.

Apart from looking at the plethora of research that clearly indicates the positive effect women at the top are having on corporate profits … it is interesting to see whether women like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf have been successful in doing an even tougher job of leading a nation …. out of crisis.

Professor Katherine Phillips has co-authored a report which examined five-decades of 5,700 national leader observations in 139 nations. Just published, the findings showed: in the most ethnically diverse countries, women outperform their male counterparts in terms of GDP, which is a significant indicator of progress. In tough economies with great ethnic diversity, countries with a female at the helm correlate with a 6.6 % rate of growth in GDP after their arrival. This compares, in similar situations with a less than 1% return from male leaders.

As Professor Phillips says, this “dispels the myth that women are too maternal, lack strength or are otherwise ill-equipped to provide senior-level leadership in trying times and amid complex circumstances. Our findings reveal that not only can women grow global economies, but that a little motherly sensitivity can go a long way in guiding a nation in need of healing to not only mend, but thrive.

She goes on to point out that, “Ethnically diverse nations suffer from more ethnic conflict and inequality, less inclusion and weaker economic growth than their more ethnically homogeneous counterparts.” This makes governing a much more complex challenge, and with women not only succeeding but thriving in these situations, it points to a need to reexamine the qualities associated with successful leadership.

Professor Phillips says, “To be sure, care, compassion and ‘motherly sensitivity’ do not immediately trigger thoughts of effective leadership, nation-building and economic might. We wanted to investigate whether there were times when that nurturing style of leadership is not only acceptable, but highly desirable for a country’s future growth. Our evidence adds to an active scholarly and public conversation about the value of women’s collaborative, transformational, inclusive leadership styles. We discovered that countries with the deepest ethnic divides perform better on average with women at the helm.”

Christine Lagarde, managing director of the IMF, often points out the difference that women bring to leadership situations. She is famously quoted as saying that if it had been Lehman sisters, the bank would probably not have collapsed! She also says that when times are tough, women are much better at doing what needs to be done and was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying: “ When it’s messy, get the women.”

Well the world is pretty darn messy right now and getting even messier so I think it is time, when looking for new leadership and new solutions, to actively seek more capable women leaders.

Professor Phillips’ article goes on to say: “Perhaps its women’s proclivity for inclusivity and collaboration that provides for such radical growth. Evolutionary social psychologists suggest that people instinctively select and follow leaders who are uniquely well-suited to solve the particular social coordination challenges faced by the group. We have seen this at work on the global stage in how nations select their leaders. For example, in Liberia, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf — fondly regarded as the country’s “Iron Lady” with a touch of motherly sensitivity — was elected to nurture her war-ravaged, corrupt Liberia back to vitality. Or take the case of South Korea, which elected their first female president, Park Geun-hye, with the hope of laying “the groundwork for an era of harmonious unification” for a deeply-divided Korean peninsula.”

For me these are exciting times and I am thrilled to see such a body of research reinforce the unique contribution of women.