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Nice Girls Finish Second

Last Friday (27 August 2010) I attended a great luncheon debate organised by the Australian Institute of Management "Nice Girls Finish Second". Over 1000 people attended with around a 98 percent female gender bias. I was the only male sitting at a table of 12. The debate quickly turned to the question of whether you can be both nice and a leader. Both the affirmative and negative teams used the same methodology, listing examples either of non-nice females becoming leaders or vice versa. Of course, arguing this way suffers from the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.

What are the characteristics of true leader? Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, a blogger on BNET has argued in his excellent (and I think best) book Managing With Power: Politics and Influence in Organization that leaders have six core characteristics: Energy, Team player, Focus, Conflict, Empathy, and Flexibility.

Energy and a team player True leaders are the first in the office and the last to leave. Another characteristic of the true leader is the ability to submerge one's ego and become a team player during one's career. Both these are characteristics of someone with a high Mover component. Movers are friendly and generally thought of as agreeable. The majority of high Movers are female.

Focus and the ability to handle conflict Typically, the people who become CEOs do so by focusing their energy and avoiding wasted effort. They succeed by focusing their efforts in one industry and generally one company. Real leaders are willing to engage when necessary in conflict and confrontation. Many people mistakenly believe that to get along you go along. However, leaders have discovered that conflict will often provide you far more power than pliability. Conflict and focus are characteristics of the Politician component. These people are driven by the desire to win. While they see themselves as decisive and assertive, most people see them as impulsive and aggressive. The majority of high Politicians are male and not very nice people.

Empathy and flexibility True leaders put themselves in other people's shoes. True leaders have also learned that to succeed it is necessary to be able to modify one's behaviour. Flexibility is essential to success, particularly for managers. Empathy and flexibility are characteristics of the Hustler component. Again, this is a component more often found in the male. Hustlers are genial and charming, and make a great first impression. Unfortunately, this can dissipate; people may regard them as nice initially but subsequently form a different view.

So of the three emotional components that drive the true leader, one is nice (and found more often in females), one is definitely not nice and the third is only initially nice and both these are found more often in males. In the end the debate was won by the negative team which given the gender make-up of the audience was not surprising. Also, most female leaders are generally nicer people than their male counterparts. Nevertheless, it did make for an interesting lunch and well done to BNET for being one of the sponsors.