Leadership educators strive to meet demand from business, industry and education for people well trained in leadership theory and practice. The problem is not a shortage of material on leadership but just the opposite, complicated by the question of whether women lead differently from men.
“The subject of leadership is so vast that it is unclear,” training consultant and doctoral student Elizabeth Down said at the University of Nebraska conference on Women in Educational Leadership held in Lincoln NE in October 2013.
Leadership education is a challenge that she knows from both sides. She has trained leaders as an independent consultant, as co-owner of a company and as a training consultant for nearly seven years at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She mentors small business leaders through Gallup University NE.
Down is also a graduate assistant working on a doctorate in the agricultural leadership, education and communication program at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. She finds that the diversity of leadership research, often contradictory, undermines leadership education.
“Every industry is clamoring for leaders who are well educated, well supported and knowledgeable about leadership theory so they can understand the models and apply them,” Down said. But how do you teach leadership when it’s all so ambiguous?
Reviewing the existing literature, she and Holland Goeser identified seven of the most widely respected leadership theories. As fellow students in a master’s degree program, they began to gather, organize and analyze a huge quantity of peer-reviewed data from other researchers.
They each looked at the material separately, coding and looking for trends. They put it through rigorous quantitative analysis and brought their qualitative insights to the process, too. Their goal: a unified “mega-model” of leadership theories with attention to the role of gender.
Seven theories of leadership
According to prominent psychologist Dr. Sharon Stephens Brehm, women and men lead with different styles but show no difference in their capacity to lead. Starting with Brehm’s premise, Down and Goeser applied the lens of gender to each theory in their megamodel. “I still think there is no difference in capacity for leadership, but rather the difference is in how it is applied,” Down told WIHE.
• Transactional leadership. Leaders appeal to followers’ self-interest by setting up tit-for-tat exchanges. “Do the work and you’ll get the grade.” The literature suggests this traditional approach is associated primarily with men.
• Situational leadership. Effective leaders vary their approach to suit the situation. Studies based on this influential theory associate it equally with women and men.
• Trait leadership. Leaders are born, not made. An effective leader can be identified by her combination of personal traits. Women and men are comparable in innate leadership traits, according to this model.
• Functional leadership. Leadership in this model, which is associated somewhat more with women, is a set of communication behaviors by which the leader gets the group to accomplish a task. The leader engages in coaching, training and team-building, monitors the environment and organizes group activities.
• Servant leadership. The leader’s role is to support the followers. One major study found no significant differences between women and men in their use of servant leadership.
• Charismatic leadership. This is about the emotional tie between leader and followers. While many see it as a masculine leadership style, women and men use it equally. “I think the biggest difference lies in the situations in which the charismatic leadership is practiced and in which situations the followers respond to a man’s or a woman’s charisma,” she said.
• Transformational leadership. The transformational leader—likely to be a woman—energizes, motivates and transforms her followers, making them more effective.
Putting it all together
Research shows that women’s leadership tends to be strongly transformational. Women also seem to use functional leadership more than men, while transactional leadership is a strongly male style.
In the other four categories—situational, trait, servant and charismatic—women and men appear roughly comparable.
None of these styles is right or wrong. “Each style has its own strengths that will make it more relevant and effective in a given situation. The most effective leaders utilize a variety of leadership styles,” Down said. They have skills in a number of styles but likely prefer one style over another.
Of the seven leadership styles, the first three—transactional, situational and trait—are driven by the leader, who makes the decisions and exhibits the traits. A commander standing alone before his troops is a classic male stereotype.
The last three—servant, charismatic and transformational leadership—are more complex. These styles require a strong relationship between leader and followers. She called these styles “more evolved,” referring to the application of particular styles and not to the leaders who use them.
While women’s preferences run to the use of more evolved, relationship-centered forms of leadership, neither women nor men are more evolved as leaders. And no style is exclusive to the gender that prefers it.
“My hope is that we, as educators, will stretch beyond our own preferences to include a wide variety of leadership styles in our classrooms,” she told WIHE. “If we can provide leadership lessons and opportunities to students that develop both ‘female’ and ‘male’ styles of leadership, I believe we will produce well-rounded and highly effective leaders to help shape our future.”
Contact Beth Down at firstname.lastname@example.org
Cook, Sarah Gibbard. (2014, February). Mega-Model Tracks Trends in Women's Leadership. Women in Higher Education, 23(2), 8.