This week for women’s history month, I’ll be turning toward the “professionals”–those women whose job clearly includes negotiation–and highlight how their negotiation and leadership skills should be celebrated.  The skill set demonstrated by these successful leaders could be characterized as balancing assertiveness and empathy.  Or being willing to both listen and make hard decisions.  Walk and chew gum.  Lead and have children.  Utilize all the tools in the tool box rather than rely on one strategy.

Even before the pandemic, I was so impressed with Jacinda Ardern’s leadership style in steering New Zealand through multiple crises.  There was the mass murder at the two mosques in March 2019 (and then the volcanic eruption in December 2019) in which she was already demonstrating the leadership skills of listening, demonstrating empathy, and acting decisively.  While many of us have been taught (and struggle with) the balance of assertiveness versus empathy in negotiation, Ardern has been able to manage this balance perfectly throughout her career.  She immediately visited the victims from the massacre (pointedly with her head covered in respect) and also passed gun legislation within weeks. 

This balance of action and empathy was even more on display during the last year of the Covid crisis.  Ardern’s ability to rally her country, to make people feel they were part of a crucial team, and, at the same time, to lock New Zealand down has kept the infection and death rate low.  (By the way, Ardern gave birth while in office, took leave, and has a stay-at-home partner to care for her daughter–something that is now hardly mentioned in the news given her professional accomplishments.)

Angela Merkel of Germany is another longstanding international leader who has balanced her incredible smarts (Ph.D. in quantum chemistry) with the willingness to listen.   She could both talk to Putin in Russian (creating rapport) and not agree at all with him (one of the few world leaders to stand up to him directly).  She has been hailed for her humility, turning early in her career to Tony Blair for advice and, in negotiating the Berlin climate deal as environmental minister, she turned to the minister from India for advice in how to get the deal done (managing to both get it done and benefit German businesses.)  As an avid listener, she waits to see what is needed before outlining her own position, “outsmarting male opponents who declare their hand too early.”  This has, in fact, become its own verb in German vernacular merkeln which means “to wait for the strategic opportunity, or see how the chips lie, or how a landscape presents itself, and then make a strategic move.” 

This balance of skills has been even more on display in the last year during the pandemic where female leaders outshone their peers in keeping their countries safe.  Early reports last year demonstrated this impact immediately and, a year later, these countries  have opened their countries up faster than others.  Why might this be so?  A Forbes commentator outlined four skills–telling the truth, being decisive, relying on technology, and demonstrating love.  

There have been years of research timidly suggesting that women’s leadership styles might be different and beneficial. Instead, too many political organizations and companies are still working to get women to behave more like men if they want to lead or succeed. Yet these national leaders are case study sightings of the seven leadership traits men may want to learn from women.  It’s time we recognized it—and elected more of it.

Research from Harvard Business Review backs this up even more with a recent study on leadership during crisis in which women excel at more measures than men.

Based on our data [employees] want leaders who are able to pivot and learn new skills; who emphasize employee development even when times are tough; who display honesty and integrity; and who are sensitive and understanding of the stress, anxiety, and frustration that people are feeling. Our analysis shows that these are traits that are more often being displayed by women. But as the crisis continues, and intensifies in many places, all leaders, regardless of gender, should strive to meet those needs.

As so many negotiations occur in the context of crisis, pressure, and anxiety, there is no question that these set of skills are important in conflict.  We have terrific female leaders that have already demonstrated assertiveness and empathy, decisiveness and rapport building, consulting with others before deciding and getting it done.  Imagine if we recognized that these leadership and negotiation skills are valuable all the time and not just in a pandemic!