Leadership Styles of the World’s 10 Most Powerful Women

Wednesday, January 08 2014

Is there a characteristically feminine leadership style or does each woman have her own characteristics when it comes to directing teams?

What are the common traits in the top women in power? How is your leadership style similar?


20140108-WOMEN-LEADERSHIP-STYLES top10women355Female Leadership Style is talked about a lot lately; there's an ongoing debate in management schools about how women may lead differently from men and whether or not gender plays a role in determining management styles. What has been firmly established, however, is that there are clearly defined traits that are common in political, business and spiritual leaders.

In the 40s, German psychologist Kurt Lewing studied these behaviors and was able to group them in the following four categories:

  1. Authoritative: Task and action-based leadership. Discipline, obedience and efficiency are rewarded by these leaders.
  2. Liberal: The functions of the leader are interspersed among the group members. Authority is delegated and shared.
  3. Democratic: Group-oriented leadership. Team participates in decision making; authority is delegated; subordinates are involved in establishing methodologies. Gives feedback and serves as a guide.
  4. Bureaucratic: Rigorously follows rules and ensures that subordinates are detail-oriented and precise.

Do you have team spirit? Are you methodical and do you like to establish procedures and manage work groups? Do you enjoy working on a team and seeking group consensus?

It's true that while specific female leadership characteristics may exist - such as empathy and adaptaibility, if we analyze the personality of the 10 most powerful women in the world, it's easy to match them up with the 4 styles established by Lewin.

Every year, Forbes Magazine publishes a list of the 100 most powerful women in the world. Below are the top 10 according to the most recent data, published in May 2013:

  1. Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany
  2. Dilma Rousseff, President of Brazil
  3. Melina Gates, Co-President of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
  4. Michelle Obama, First Lady of the United States
  5. Hillary Clinton, Politician & Lawyer
  6. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook
  7. Christine Lagarde, Director of the International Monetary Fund
  8. Janet Napolitano, President of the University of California, Politician
  9. Sonia Gandhi, President of the Indian National Congress
  10. Indra Nooyi, CEO PepsiCo

Women Who Take Charge
History has left us with many examples of leaders who stand out because of their greatness and vision but who have also exhibited an excess of ego – authoritarian leadership. The now iconic Steve Jobs falls into this category. Women of great determination and pragmatism when it comes to achieving their goals have also been included in this group. Angela Merkel has been compared to the British ex-Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher and is now called the New Iron Lady for her no-nonsense way of governing.

Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton have something in common: both revolutionized the political panorama.

Melinda Gates demonstrated great clarity and focus when she created the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000 with her husband, Bill Gates, president of Microsoft Corporation. She devotes her energy to philanthropic causes; to date more than $24 billion has been donated to causes related to health, education and social justice.

Sheryl Sandberg is another example of a woman who has taken up arms for a cause. In addition to being responsible for strategic decisions at Facebook, she revolutionized public opinion with her book Lean In, a new feminist manifesto that rgues that sometimes women themselves are the ones who hold up the glass ceiling. Indra Nooyi knew how to insist on achieving her vision at PepsiCo, resulting in a 1.2% increase in the company's quarterly revenues to a total of $13 billion dollars.

Village Women
Everyone knows of a spiritual or political leader who moves the masses with their charisma and speaking skills. This quality becomes even more admirable when it complements a personality that is deeply conciliatory – democratic leadership.

Dilma Rousseff recently demonstrated such qualities after multiple protests in Brazil last June which sought to expose political corruption and improve public services. Public opinion of Rousseff fell from 73.7% to 49.3% after the protests, but the Brazilian president sat at the table with representatives from the street to discuss their requests and took action. Her approval ratings quickly grew to 58% as a result.

20140108-WOMEN-LEADERSHIP-STYLES michelleobama355Two other women who stand out for their charisma and accessibility are Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton. Both share many common traits: they are or have been the First Lady, are members of the Democratic Party and have worked to support and raise awareness about social causes, specifically those that benefit women in the work place. The most important of their shared characteristics is that both represent a revolution in the American political landscape. One is the first black woman to reside in the White House and the other has gotten the closest of any woman to US Presidency.

Let's turn now to Sonia Gandhi. If we were to include her in one of Lewin's categories, she would belong to those with liberal leadership styles. In fact, she came to power without even seeking it. Originally from Italy, She "simply fell in love with Rajiv Gandhi. Neither her nor her husband had political aspirations when they decided to embark on a life together," writes Javier Moro in his biography The Red Sari, which has been met with an avalanche of critiques in India given Gandhi's "near deity status."

Women of Steel Initiative
There are also many team leaders whose primary objective is to follow the law and who don't bend the rules in any form – bureaucratic leadership. A clear example of this is Christine Lagarde has been a fierce defender of the mechanisms of financial regulation in countries such as Greece in order to alleviate the effects of the economic crisis. Janet Napolitano also focused her efforts on establishing security measures and regulating immigration as a preventive strategy against terrorist attacks and natural catastrophes.

All of these personality traits represent different ways of facing the challenges associated with governing a country, leading a work teak or any type of collective. Which is better or worse? It's debatable. Do you have team spirit? Are you methodical and do you like to establish procedures and manage work groups? Or, do you enjoy working on a team and seeking group consensus? Understanding your own management style or that of your boss is helpful to making the most of your team.



  • Christina Chaplin
    Just goes to show that there is no no particular type of "female" leadership, but rather it depends on the personality of each individual, regardless whether it is a man or a woman.
    Wednesday, Aug 20 2014 12:05:59pm
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