Women executives: Not picture perfect

A lack of vision may be holding female execs down on the corporate ladder.

Women perform better than men on most leadership attributes, according to a new study by Insead researchers in France, with one glaring exception: vision. Take the 2008 Democratic leadership race in the United States. Barack Obama won top marks for his vision of change, while one-time front-runner Hillary Clinton stalled partly because her vision was overshadowed by other components of her campaign, such as how she would handle the day-to-day logistics of leading the country — a tactic that didn’t exactly inspire the masses.

At least that’s the conclusion of research by Herminia Ibarra, an organizational behaviour professor, and Otilia Obodaru, a PhD student. They analyzed five years’ worth of evaluations from more than 2,800 executives enrolled at Insead executive education courses around the world and found that both genders show a preference for female leaders in areas such as their ability to energize, plus their tenacity and emotional intelligence. But when it comes to envisioning, what Ibarra and Obodaru describe as the “ability to recognize new opportunities and trends in the environment and develop a new strategic direction for an enterprise,” men rate male leaders better, while women show a preference for female leaders.

But because men still tend to make many of the decisions about whom to promote to the upper ranks, the researchers say this perception is noteworthy, since it’s often considered a must-have leadership quality.

Leaders should be able to answer the question “Where are we going?” both for themselves and others. Although the study doesn’t offer a conclusion on whether a female’s lack of vision is a reality or just perception, the researchers do offer three theories based on their conversations with female executives about why women rate more poorly. One posits that women are equally visionary, but in a different way. For example, they are more collaborative in developing a corporation’s vision and, consequently, get less credit for it.

Another theory is that women hesitate to go out on a limb. Female execs said they created their visions on corporate facts and irrefutable analysis, “not unprovable assertions about how the future will take shape.” A rationale for this is that female leaders are often not afforded the same presumption of competence given to their male counterparts, so they don’t stray from facts and figures. The third theory is that women take a more practical approach to work, focusing on strategies that lead to concrete results.

Irrespective of gender, being a visionary is a skill necessary for the top job. And, fortunately, it is a skill that can be developed by becoming aware of identity traps and networking. “Vision is an internal presumption of competence,” say Ibarra and Obodaru. “Giving yourself latitude, believing in your ability and assuming responsibility for creating a future for others.”