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The two classic styles of leadership can be called hard or soft.

Hard tends to be assertive-dominant, analytical, and, when needed, remorseless. Soft tends to be more co-operative and collaborative, empathetic, and laid back, letting others take the lead.

I have had fun writing about some newfangled notions of leadership styles, each worth considering in various situations, but in essence for many people their instincts and actions boil down to hard or soft. Those are long-standing approaches, extending beyond our own time as managers. But these days, they are commonly associated with men and women – men more likely to display the hard side and women the soft side.

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To say that is to be both trite and offensive at the same time – trite because much has been written already about it and offensive because many people don’t like to be pigeonholed by gender (and many men, in particular, have their back up against gender analysis of work).

Betty-Ann Heggie, a Toronto-based consultant and former senior vice-president of Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan (now Nutrien Ltd.), offers helpful perspective by asking us to think of masculine and feminine “energies” coming together in what she calls “gender physics.” We are pulled by our gender to our namesake energy, but gender is not destiny. She says that about 70 per cent of men and women will have a natural energy consistent with their biological gender while 30 per cent don’t.

Even that can be influenced by discipline. In her workshops, she finds a higher propensity for masculine energy within women employed in engineering and law, where masculine energies are valued. Younger men, particularly those who have taken paternity leave, are more apt to have a higher feminine energy level.

Neither energy beats the other in all situations. Each can backfire on us – if we define our own preferred energy, we can easily recall situations where it was very helpful and others where it wasn’t. She says we want to be humans, not genders, and should be seeking to be whole – using masculine and feminine energies, together. “Balanced leaders are the best leaders,” she writes in her book Gender Physics.

You undoubtedly know how this plays out for you and your colleagues. In her book, she lists complementary energies. For example, feminine energy tends to be “we” and masculine “me” – part of the group versus apart. Feminine energy is totally engaged and contributing, but is content to follow the leaders; masculine energy wants to direct the action. How/what is another distinction: Feminine energy relishes the process and considers all its aspects while masculine energy lets details fall away as it focuses on the goal. Feminine energy is motivated by emotion and ideals, or the heart, while masculine energy seeks logical and reasoned examination, the head.

In each case – and others she delineates – we need both energies, as individuals and as organizations. But it can be hard to break out of our gender’s pull. “Fear of rejection motivates men and women to express the attributes of their gender,” she says.

Much has been written about how hard it is for women to retain elements of their gender pull, particularly in masculine energy organizations, and how, paradoxically, when they take on masculine norms such as being assertive they can be rejected. Less attention has been paid to how men get penalized for straying from masculine norms. “Research demonstrates that men too face backlash when they don’t adhere to masculine gender stereotypes – when they show vulnerability, act nicer, display empathy, express sadness, exhibit modesty, and proclaim to be feminists,” David Mayer, a professor of management and organizations at the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business, wrote recently in Harvard Business Review.

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So the 30 per cent of men with feminine energies and those with masculine energies who try to find more balance could be on shaky ground. For example, when male (but not female) leaders ask for help they are viewed as less competent, capable and confident. Nice guys are evaluated as less competent and less hireable for managerial roles. Women are more likely to get credit for empathy at work than men.

Gender is powerful. We need to be aware of its pull on us and the threat of stereotypes. Thinking of it as energies – part of gender physics – may help us find better balance.

Cannonballs

  • Josh Sample, CEO of Drive Social Media, a marketing consultancy, lets employees write their own recommendations when they are leaving his company. But there’s a kicker: They can only write it once, and after he reads it he either signs his name to it or trashes it, without a second chance. That forces them to be objective, encourages reflection and self-awareness, and gives him and the employee something they can be happy about.
  • Don’t stall when you get an idea from an employee you are unsure about.  Bryant University management professor Michael Roberto says employees deserve a clear yes or no answer in a timely fashion, with a rationale when the answer is negative. Delay and you just cause them to distrust you and the organization.
  • In job interviews, count the number of absolutes the candidate offers – “always,” “never,” “absolutely” and the like. It could signal the person is a zealot and thus somebody not to hire, says executive search consultant William Vanderbloemen.

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