Gender, Leadership, & CSV

by  S. Max Brown  |  Leadership Development

If you haven’t read the Harvard Business Review this month, you should.  Why?  Here are just three of the articles highlighting research that will rock, push, disturb, and ultimately change the way we do business:

  1. How Women End Up On the “Glass Cliff,” by Susanne Bruckmüller and Nyla R. Branscombe.  They report that people prefer leaders with stereotypically male strengths, when a company is running well.  However, “when a company is in crisis, they think stereotypically female skills are needed to turn things around.”
  2. Finding Hard Ways to Measure ‘Soft’ Leadership,” led by Herminia Ibarra.   Professor Ibarra is analyzing her list of “The Best-Performing CEOs in the World” and checking to see if there is a common thread in how these leaders approach leadership.  She asks, “Can we provide hard evidence of the benefits of ‘soft’ leadership?  Why is this important?  Because “distributed leadership, empowerment, and knowledge networks are still viewed as indulgent.”  If they can identify the common “soft” traits of the most successful leaders, they “may be able to predict which leaders will add the most value” to their organizations in the future.
  3. Creating Shared Value,” by Michael E. Porter and Mark R. Kramer.  “Not all profit is equal.  Profits involving a social purpose represent a higher form of capitalism, one that creates a positive cycle of company and community prosperity.”  Creating Shared Value (CSV) is different than Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in that it creates both economic and societal value.  While CSR focused on reputation with little link back to the company, CSV combines company and community interests.  This is “capitalism unleashed” to create the next wave of growth.

Why does any of this matter?  Because organizations that want to compete in the future will adopt new ways of doing business.  Instead of answers though, I have questions.  Questions that I hope will stir some reflection and some dialogue regarding our current state of affairs, and where we are headed.  I don’t ask merely to be provocative, but to start a conversation that will hopefully provide some clarity into this new way of being (and leading):

  • Are we hearing more about women in leadership due to the financial crisis (based on the first article cited)?  How have we limited and destroyed value because of our reliance on dominant male strengths?  Would the financial crisis have happened at all if we had more female leaders?
  • Decades of leadership theory have suggested that we are better when we learn how to become more “emotionally intelligent,” but the ability to implement “softer” skills in the workplace have often been perceived as a career ender for those that want to climb the ladder.  Is it possible that this resurgence in softer skills training has also come as a result of the financial crisis?
  • Why do we tend to punish men when they demonstrate “soft” leadership?  Do we shame men that show compassion?  Why is it considered a weakness to be vulnerable and transparent when we know that trust is built on these “softer” skills?
  • Likewise, how do we demonize strong women?  Do women feel compelled to “man-up” in order to compete?  Does “manning-up” wipe out the strengths women naturally bring to the table?  Do we take some pleasure criticizing those that seem to “stray” from the societal definitions of normal?   What impact do we have on future leaders that don’t feel like conforming to the status quo of gender stereotypes?
  • What do great companies do to sustain their growth year after year?  How do they treat their employees?  How do they view their role in society?  How does CSV change the way we all do business?

What do you think?

What’s Next? Please leave a comment below to join the conversation…

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What People Are Saying

Mike Ramer  |  08 Feb 2011  |  Reply

Hi Max,

Terrific post on a timely topic. You ask great questions about gender and leadership.

Initial thoughts come to mind: Strong and Sensitive, Soft and Hard, Tough Love. Knowing how and when is the stuff of effective parenting, top management and inspiring leadership.

On average, are women more emotionally intelligent? If so, do they make better leaders? The answers, I think, lie in both biology and conditioning. Are men tougher? Are women more sensitive?

I had a strong mother figure who was nurturing, driven and inspiring. She made me tough, sensitive and a creative problem-solver. All serve me well in running my search business, managing people and motivating others in my training/keynotes.

The answers to your questions may center around: Who are the better listeners? Who can offer constructive feedback? Who can “read” people and inspire?

Top leaders to me are both men and women with kind hearts, deep sensitivity who are tough when they need to be. They are exceptional communicators who inspire with their vision.

Best, Mike

S. Max Brown  |  08 Feb 2011  |  Reply


Thank you. I agree that striking a balance is key, and I appreciate your conclusion when you said: “Top leaders to me are both men and women with kind hearts, deep sensitivity who are tough when they need to be. They are exceptional communicators who inspire with their vision.”

One of the many questions that remain for me though include, “How have stereotypes limited our ability to move forward?”

Yours in the conversation,


Sonia Di Maulo  |  08 Feb 2011  |  Reply

Hi Max!

Interesting questions… great opportunity for discussion. I had not heard of CSV before and I am thrilled that this “concept” exists – I have been actively practicing “creating shared value” for many years and am thrilled to have found a group such as Lead Change that subscribes to this approach of combining company and community interests… to unleash the next wave of growth and character-based leaders. Fantastic! We work, in harmony, to help each other grow better and stronger together. The results are exponentially significant!

Your questions have led me here… its a long rant, one that I feel passionately about… related to 2.“Finding Hard Ways to Measure ‘Soft’ Leadership”.

For me, soft competencies mean having the ability to connect and cultivate trust and collaboration (through authentic feedback). I have seen environments that devalue “soft” actions and yet these same actions are linked to being able to achieve business objectives. Example: an organization believes in providing their people with soft skills training (linked to achieving their business objective) but then, post training, the organization runs as before and these newly acquired soft skills are not integrated into business processes, recognized and encouraged. Over time, training loses value as people start saying “training rarely changes anything!”

When implementing any training program, it’s so important to look at the entire organization to see which of the areas of performance are causing the pain/lack of growth and to develop a solution that sustains learning and growth over time. If soft skills training is the answer, “just” training may not fix the pain. The question is, how can this training achieve a return on investment where the new individually acquired skills are integrated, supported and encouraged? The answer may include implementation of processes that address other factors than just the knowledge and skills of employees, such as looking at feedback/communication, tools/processes, consequences/incentives, capacity, and motivation. A great example of this is to bring the managers/executives into the solution and train them how to encourage, recognize, and follow-up on the newly acquired knowledge & skills.

Critical discourse: A discussion of organizational objectives and the holistic approach to meeting those objectives, in which one aspect may involve training. The whole organization has to be willing to accept “soft” actions in the workplace environment for the training to stick… without this the chances of failure are greater… the benefits of new leaders and managers being able to truly connect and build trust and collaboration through an increase in Emotional Intelligence are lost.

There is so much more discussion and dialogue to be had (I didn’t even get started on gender!)! Thank you for getting the ball rolling.


S. Max Brown  |  08 Feb 2011  |  Reply


I appreciate your reply! The training is important for sure. Indeed, we spend a lot of time at work training on other subjects, and this can sometimes be perceived as a lower priority — even when the evidence suggests such training can be extremely important.

The bottom line: I believe some take such training for granted because it seems like second nature (perhaps even unnecessary) until they experience the benefits.

Yours in the conversation,


Andrea Learned  |  08 Feb 2011  |  Reply

This is so timely and important a topic! I am interviewing corporate sustainability leaders right now for some academic work (which will eventually be shared in some way outside of my master’s degree, I’m sure). I am specifically only talking with men, because I am interested to see whether so-called gendered leadership styles emerge. So far, it looks to me as though the best leaders are those who have that pragmatic/”hard” side well-covered but who know that also tending to the “soft” side will exponentially improve their leadership persuasiveness/effectiveness. Especially for sustainability-motivated organizations today, diversity and a willingness to just finally get over this “hard” vs “soft” idea will be key. If we stop talking about it as though “hard” and “soft” skills are polarized and connected with specific genders – we’ll open up a whole new conversation. Great piece – thanks for writing it up!

S. Max Brown  |  08 Feb 2011  |  Reply


Like you, I feel like the discussion on “hard” and “soft” skills connected to specific genders unintentionally limits our perspectives. That said, I do believe that such stereotypes do exist, and we see examples of it every day in how the genders are portrayed.

For instance, men that cry on camera tend to be criticized for it (unless it is a sports team celebrating a victory). Women that are perceived as tough often receive similar ridicule. So, while I believe the balance of pragmatism and sensitivity are both important as well, it seems to be easier said than done.

I’m fascinated with the research to help reveal the character traits of great leaders. For sure, boundaries are being pushed and expanded, but it is tough to ignore existing stereotypes in considering the impact on existing ways of doing business.

Isn’t it interesting that in a crisis, people believe women leaders are better at resolving it?

FYI: As I write this, I’m preparing for two presentations today in India. Wharton’s business school dean recently suggested that US businesses should study India’s way of doing business — to paraphrase his words: it is more holistic.

Interesting stuff for sure! Thank you for participating.

Yours in the conversation,


Chad Balthrop  |  09 Feb 2011  |  Reply


I really appreciate your post. I don’t regularly read the Harvard Business Review, but it looks like I should begin! The idea of CSV is interesting. Yesterday I purchased a pair of TOMS Shoes. This is the company that gives a FREE pair of shoes to someone who needs them every time someone purchases a pair of shoes. There’s an interesting dynamic at play when I can buy something, receive the direct benefit of the product and at the same time realize I’ve just fulfilled a critical need in someone else’s life. It’s an idea for doing business that I think has tremendous potential for other industries and genuine world change.

God Bless,

S. Max Brown  |  09 Feb 2011  |  Reply


I appreciate your post and it reminds me of a quote by John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods: “The best way to maximize profits over the long-term is to not make them the primary goal of the business.”

Great companies know that profits are a byproduct of living a bigger purpose.

Yours in the conversation,


Dorothy Dalton  |  09 Feb 2011  |  Reply

Max this is a great post covering topics of our era. As the general message in the financial services sector seems to be a return to ” business as usual”, I’m intrigued by your question would the financial criis have been as severe ( or even happened) if there had been more women leaders? We will never know now – but now does seem the time to bring in some changes and look at different leadership models.

S. Max Brown  |  09 Feb 2011  |  Reply


Thank you. “Business as usual” is exactly why I asked these questions. I think we need to challenge the status quo if we want to make things better.

I don’t have the answers. However, the questions provide possibilities to new thinking — I hope.

Flying from Hyderabad to Bangalore last night, I read an article about women in India. There are now hotels that cater directly to them to make sure they feel safe (including entire floors for women only and women security guards). Hmmm . . .

Yours in the conversation,


Mary C Schaefer  |  17 Feb 2011  |  Reply

Hi Max. There is so much I could say, but I will leave it at this.

First, I heartily support what I’ve read so far.

Secondly, in my coaching, both as an insider and outsider in the corporate world, the best way I have found to coach and encourage my clients (either gender) in this area, starts with their self-examination, getting clear on their own perspectives, and cultivating the courage and words to speak up when they see something that doesn’t feel right.

Thirdly, it is so important that YOU and other men are asking questions and weighing in on this. For the “old order” to transform, those in the majority have to make a decision to take action and drive change. From a “diversity studies” perspective, when I say “majority” it does not have to be about numbers, but those who are perceived to have the most power.

Thank you for raising this topic and pointing out these resources.


Jennifer V. Miller  |  17 Feb 2011  |  Reply

It’s so refreshing to see a man’s perspective on the issues of influence, leadership and gender bias. Your inclusive and non-judgmental approach is much appreciated. I agree that stereotypes prevail and that both genders have the potential to be negatively affected, depending on the context of the critique. I’m intrigued by the word “holistic” as it applies to the US way of doing business. Going to have to noodle on that one. . .

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