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What makes a leader?

For a long time, women were taught to "act like men" to get ahead at work, donning shoulder pads and boxy suits, acting out qualities such as authority, decisiveness. But a new breed of women is upending those rules, embracing empathy and collaboration

By Jessica Bennett
Published: Jun 17, 2019

What makes a leader? Susan Zirinsky, the head of CBS News, in New York, June 13, 2019. Zirinsky has applied her trademark work ethic to helping her organization adjust its course. “The company needed a major reset,” she said. “I wanted to take the organization functionally and spiritually to a better place.” (Jeenah Moon/The New York Times)

“You’re too accessible.”

That is what Susan Zirinsky, the new head of CBS News, was told early in her career — because she was seemingly everywhere at once.

It was during that era that she agreed to meet with a young woman named Hannah Yang, who was on the verge of quitting what she had thought would be her dream job — working for Charlie Rose. She was troubled by the workplace environment and had decided to leave, but was convinced her career in journalism would be over.

Yang had only briefly met Zirinsky, then executive producer at “48 Hours,” but decided to ask for a meeting. She expected Zirinsky to say no. Instead, Zirinsky ended up giving her the most valuable advice of her career: to pursue the business side of media.

Eighteen years later, Zirinsky — known to many as “Z” — is president of CBS News, brought in to run the news division following a massive company crisis over sexual misconduct that included the firing of the company’s chief executive, Les Moonves, and Rose. She is the first woman to hold that job. Yang is a business executive at The New York Times, who said she now makes a point of making herself accessible, too.

“It is because she was so accessible that I — a nobody at the time, really — was able to get this critical advice from her,” Yang said of Zirinsky, who appeared onstage to talk about gender and leadership at The Times’ New Rules Summit last week. Yang recently reached out to Zirinsky after nearly two decades to thank her. She said Zirinsky replied immediately.

For a long time, women were taught to “act like men” to get ahead at work. They donned shoulder pads and boxy suits, played by the rules, and acted out qualities that seemed to make for successful leaders — authority, decisiveness, not being “too accessible.”

But a new breed of women leaders like Zirinsky is upending those old rules, embracing traits like empathy and collaboration to get things done, and refusing to suppress the qualities that make them who they are. (Some may call these “feminine” qualities, but others prefer to call them the traits of well-rounded leaders.)

Think Jacinda Ardern, prime minister of New Zealand (and one of the few world leaders to give birth while in office), who spoke onstage at the first New Rules Summit last year.

Ardern drew international praise for her ability to mix compassion with concrete action in the wake of a recent mass shooting in her country, in which dozens of worshippers at two mosques were killed. In the hours after, Ardern, the youngest female leader in the world at 38, wore a black headscarf and grieved alongside victims’ families. “We are one, they are us,” she said of her country’s Muslims.

She also took swift action, banning military-style semi-automatic weapons within days of the shooting.

“It takes strength to be an empathetic leader,” she said.

But that can also be a tricky line to walk for women.

Research has found that when women exhibit character traits typically associated with male leadership — traits like decisiveness, authority or assertion — they are likely to be viewed as bossy, pushy or too aggressive, and some people reel at their behavior.

And yet when women turn around and exhibit the qualities traditionally expected of women — like niceness, nurturing and warmth — they tend to be perceived as pushovers, too soft or not “tough enough” to do the job.

It is a double bind, as sociologists have put it — a situation where you are “damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” as Joan C. Williams, a law professor and workplace scholar, has said.

And yet there is also a body of work, including research by a Harvard Business School professor, Amy Cuddy, and colleagues, which found that women can offset that bias by combining these characteristics — essentially, conveying warmth along with competence.What makes a leader?A new breed of women leaders is upending the old rules, embracing traits like empathy and collaboration to get things done, and refusing to suppress the qualities that make them who they are. (Shonagh Rae/The New York Times)

You might believe that women shouldn’t have to do that. (Is anyone else exhausted just thinking about it?) But it’s what Williams has described as “gender judo” — or combining stereotypically “feminine” behaviors, like friendliness, humor and empathy, with those behaviors still associated with men, like aggression or ambition.

Many of the world’s leaders have mastered this art: They may be tough, but they are known for their grace and humor, too.

And the good news is, there are simply more styles of leadership on display these days. Of more than 200 men fired in the wake of #MeToo, according to an analysis by The Times last year, nearly half were replaced by women — including Jennifer Salke at Amazon Studios, Christiane Amanpour at PBS and Zirinsky at CBS.

Today, for the first time, women hold the top jobs at the New York Stock Exchange and at Nasdaq. There is a female speaker of the House who is a mother of five and grandmother of nine. There are a record number of women in Congress, including young rule breakers like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who are leading with a level of camaraderie and transparency perhaps never before seen. (As a Times reporter, Maya Salam, recently put it: The Democratic newcomers have a message for you: “We’re cool, we’re transparent and we’ve got each other’s backs.”) And, of course, more women than ever are running for the Democratic nomination for president.

None of which is to say that women are innately better leaders. “That’s not necessarily the case,” said Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at Stanford University who studies gender and leadership. But there are certain things that women learn from a lifetime of operating in male-dominated spaces — things like patience, compassion and calm — that may be assets.

Think of the CBS anchor Gayle King, sitting calmly in her chair, as her interview subject, R. Kelly, who is charged with multiple counts of sexual assault, screamed, flailed and cried.

“Women’s experiences at work are undeniably different,” Cooper, the sociologist, said. “As a result, they may develop a lens on the world that can lead to different thoughts about leadership, different priorities, different ways of interacting. I think certainly all these women in power can open up definitions of who’s a leader.”

There’s a theory in social science, coined by Michelle K. Ryan and S. Alexander Haslam as the “Glass Cliff,” that explains how women are more likely to be put into leadership roles during times of crisis. This can end up well if they are successful, but be damaging if they are not — because the failure tends to be viewed not as indicative of the circumstances, but as indicative of the person’s race or gender. (Think of prominent female CEOs like Campbell’s Denise Morrison, or Irene Rosenfeld of Mondelez. Each faced tough restructuring and challenges from investors — and were replaced by men.)

The way to break that cycle, researchers say, is to have more women in power — so that one woman’s experience does not represent that of all women. (Having more women in decision-making roles has also been found to generate stronger market returns and superior profits for companies. And having more women employees, particularly in leadership roles, can reduce the incidence of sexual harassment, too.)

“When there are so few women, any single one’s success or failure represents all other women,” Cooper said. “But once there’s, you know, 30 or 40% women, then the variety among women is able to be seen.”

If you’re Zirinsky, perhaps you take that as a challenge. As she said onstage on Thursday, speaking to David Gelles, a Times business reporter: “I’ve always had something in the back of my mind: that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” (She noted that she also decided to keep the title of executive producer “just in case it doesn’t work out.”)

She could well end up nurturing a few more future leaders in the process.

©2019 New York Times News Service

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