Beyond strongman syndrome: Leading in stormy times
What can we learn from leaders who are successfully navigating these unpredictable times? This post explores how, when leaders bring a fusion of power and grace to their actions, we all benefit.
Beyond strongman syndrome
Leaders who are effectively moving through the current stormy times have something in common. They embody a combination of qualities that are often attributed to men and women separately. We tend to see decisiveness, clear action and strength as masculine attributes. We often regard compassion, kindness and empathy as feminine qualities. What we are seeing now, more than ever, is that both are necessary.
A recent article in the Financial Times highlighted how a ‘personalised, swaggering style of leadership’ is on the increase. Such leaders view strength as a ‘refusal to be intimidated by a mere disease.’ 
Also characteristic of this ‘strongman syndrome’ are attempts to control people under cover of the pandemic. It is understandable that leaders cling onto the illusion of ‘power over’ at a time of great uncertainty. Power over their people. Power over an ‘invisible enemy.’ Power over an unknown disease.
Many of their people want the reassurance of a person in authority sounding like they know what they’re talking about. But the risk is, they don’t. Along with the ‘strongman virus’ often comes contempt for the experts such as epidemiologists. There is a dismissal of the advisors such as civil servants who bring a wider perspective. By not listening to the opinions of better-informed others, wiser choices are cast aside.
Taking your people with you
Instead of this ‘macho posturing’, we need another way of leading.
For a leader to change their approach, they need an alternative model. When we find ourselves in choppy waters, we hold onto, for dear life, a log that stops us from drowning. Unless another log comes along, we won’t and don’t, unwrap our knuckles.
The leaders who are navigating the fast-moving waters well offer a lifeline to leaders who are flailing about. They also have one thing in common: they are taking their people with them. A recent article in The Guardian highlights the firm action, effective communication and compassionate approach of various trailblazers around the globe, many of whom are women. They observe:
‘From Germany to New Zealand and Denmark to Taiwan, women have managed the coronavirus crisis with aplomb. Plenty of countries with male leaders – Vietnam, the Czech Republic, Greece, Australia – have also done well. But few with female leaders have done badly.’
They praise the ‘warm, authoritative’ (note, not authoritarian) style of Tasi Ing-wen in Taiwan. They highlight the decisiveness and humanness of Denmark’s prime minster, Mette Frederiksen. They underline the heartfelt communication and decision to ‘go hard and go early’ of New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Arden. 
With their kindness and firmness, these leaders show that the best leaders take an integrated approach. They are strong and empathic, decisive and caring, directive and responsive. Whilst putting a gender lens on leadership might be simplistic, or even create unnecessary tension, it does suggest a deeper truth. When a leader shifts from seeking ‘power over’ to cultivating ‘power with’, it sets in motion a very different set of outcomes. It creates a feeling of solidarity, gives people a sense of belonging and has a generosity or ‘grace’ to it.
Leaders in the corporate world who embody this people-first approach are also doing well. In a recent FT article, Andrew Hill writes about how ‘intolerant’ companies that sacrifice their people will be ‘ill-equipped for the aftermath’ of the coronavirus. CEOs that prioritise their people and make a profit prudently by taking a balanced approach are the winners. 
Leading with power and grace
We are coming to appreciate how women have a valuable and unique contribution to make during these challenging times. This may be to do with our evolutionary history. Under stress, men are likely to go into ‘fight-or-flight’ – the usual reaction that we are all familiar with.
Scientific evidence has shown that women under pressure have evolved a different way of responding. Their ‘tend-and-befriend’ response reflects the reality of often having offspring to protect. If women took an overly aggressive stand, it could have put them and their children in serious jeopardy. If they were to have fled, they might have had to abandon their offspring.
As a result, women under stress ‘tend’ to the ones in their care by protecting them, quieting them or helping them to blend into their environment. They also ‘befriend’ others, particularly other women, by connecting. They create networks of support to exchange resources such as childcare.
This ‘tend-and-befriend’ response, whilst more typical of women, expands the repertoire for men as well. Valuing these behaviours gives a valuable alternative to the ‘strongman syndrome.’ If we overlook the distinct approach that women make, we all lose out. If we include their unique contribution, we all benefit.
If you would like to explore how to embody more balanced leadership, check out Leading with Power and Grace – a two-day leadership programme for women leaders. Sarah-Jane Menato and I co-lead the programme on 7th – 8th July 2020. Olivia Crooks will also be on our team, bringing somatic skills and rich feminine presence as we head online this time.
 How strongman leaders will exploit the coronavirus, Gideon Rachman, Financial Times, 20 April 2020
 Why some companies will survive this crisis and others will die, Andrew Hill, Financial Times, 11 May 2020