The stereotypical 20th-century business leader was a cross between the Lone Ranger and Perry White, the irascible newspaper boss of the Superman comics who bellowed, "Don't call me chief!" — because that's so clearly who he was.

But thanks to a changing world stage, new leadership styles are both needed and emerging, say leadership researchers and experts.

"Forty years ago, you could have a 15-year strategic plan, and you could get pretty far [with] it," says psychologist Sandra L. Shullman, PhD, of the international business leadership development and consulting firm Executive Development Group, headquartered in Greensboro, N.C. "Today if your strategic plan takes you out two or three years, you're thinking pretty long term."

Driving the phenomenon is the massive restructuring of such major industries as energy, transportation and publishing, as well as changes wrought by technology, the environment and shifts in global politics. Take the energy industry: While it currently needs to sell oil and hence to compete against alternative energy companies, it will need an alternative strategy itself once the oil runs out, Shullman says.

To respond, today's business leaders and managers need to be at least as flexible, collaborative and transparent as they are directorial, psychologists say. It's a claim supported by data: In a 2011 meta-analysis in Psychological Bulletin, led by Anne M. Koenig, PhD, of the University of San Diego, and Alice Eagly, PhD, of Northwestern University, the team found that for the past few decades, business-leader stereotypes have shifted away from a "my-way-or-the-highway" approach to one that incorporates good social skills.

"In general, really good leaders need to be really good learners" — open to growth, change and learning, and deft in handling ambiguity and understanding complexity, says Shullman. "Those are the qualities that seem to be needed now, more than they might have been in the past."

Minority report

These trends present opportunities for leaders who have traditionally held underdog positions, such as women and minorities.

"People who have not been part of the dominant leadership culture by definition have a better sense of how to work with people [than those in power positions] because they weren't in a position where they could just tell people what to do," says Shullman.

Women in particular are experiencing a power shift, with studies finding that female business leaders are more effective in their strategies than men. In 2011, the leadership development firm Zenger Folkman, for example, rated the leadership capacities of 7,280 male and female business leaders using an aggregate measure representing input from managers, peers and others. It concluded that women were more effective leaders overall, with women ranking higher on 12 out of 16 competencies, including taking initiative, establishing long-term goals, driving for results, and displaying high integrity and honesty. Men ranked higher in only one category, developing strategic perspective.

Meanwhile, several studies by Eagly and colleagues described in the upcoming Oxford Handbook of Gender in Organizations, find that women are more likely than men to use leadership approaches that are positive and effective. For instance, a 2003 Psychological Bulletin meta-analysis found that women were slightly more likely than men to use the "transformational" leadership style, considered the most effective of three basic leadership styles and characterized by inspiring, teaching and coaching employees. Men and women showed an equal tendency to use the "transactional" style, which rewards or punishes employees based on meeting goals and other concrete measures — but women were more likely to reward employees than men. Men also were more likely to exhibit the ineffective "laissez-faire" style, a hands-off approach that leaves workers to manage things on their own.

These findings were replicated by John Antonakis, PhD, of University of Lausaunne in a 2003 study in Leadership Quarterly. Similar results were published in 2007 and 2008 by the global consulting firm McKinsey & Company in four reports called "Women Matter", which argue that including women in leadership groups enhances corporate competitiveness.

"The whole pattern is in a sense complimentary to women because all aspects of style on which women were higher … are correlated with effectiveness," says Eagly, who has studied women's leadership since the 1980s.

Other research has identified ways that female and male leaders differ in values related to outcomes in the workplace. In three studies reported in a 2013 paper in Social Psychological & Personality Science, Jessica A. Kennedy, PhD, of the Wharton School of Business and Laura J. Kray, PhD, of the Haas Business School at the University of California, Berkeley, found that women leaders were more likely than male leaders to express moral outrage and to think decisions were bad for business when presented with situations where people compromised their ethics for money or social gain. They also reported less interest in a job when it required them to compromise their values for money or status, but the same interest as men when it didn't involve such concessions. These findings may help explain why women are less likely to go into business, say the authors, offering an alternative explanation to oft-cited reasons for the dearth of business women, such as discrimination and work-family conflict.

Quantitative and qualitative research by Adelphi University psychologist Jean Lau Chin, EdD, suggests that women and minority organizational leaders are more likely than white male leaders to endorse leadership styles that are collaborative and humane. That's likely because their styles reflect their cultural values and lived experiences as members of non-dominant groups, says Chin, who discusses the research in a 2013 article in the online Open Journal of Leadership and the book "Diversity and Leadership," due out later this year.

In general, it's important to recognize the impact social and cultural factors can play, adds diversity researcher Ruth Fassinger, PhD, professor emerita at the University of Maryland, College Park. For example, women are expected to be relational and empathic, so if they act counter to that stereotype — offering a strong opinion or setting high performance standards for others, for example — "they're seen as one of those nightmare bosses, like in [the movie] ‘The Devil Wears Prada,'" she says. "All they have to do is act like a leader and do all the things a leader should do, and they'll be perceived negatively because it goes against gender-stereotypical behavior for women."

Such biases make leading psychologically difficult for women, and even more so for those whose multiple identities — based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender expression and disability, for example — further complicate both their own leadership presentation and the perception of their leadership by others. "None of this stuff can be separated," Fassinger says.

Kinder, gentler leadership?

If the authors of the 2013 book "The Athena Doctrine: How Women (and the Men Who Think Like Them) Will Rule the Future" are right, people are starting not only to practice, but to prefer and endorse such alternative modes of leadership. For the book, New York-based writer and corporate consultant John Gerzama and journalist Michael D'Antonio surveyed 64,000 people in 13 countries, asking them to share their take on successful leadership.

In one task, the team asked half the sample to assign a gender label to 125 qualities that could characterize a leader — decisiveness, patience, passion and resilience, for instance. Then, without revealing those gender assignments — which ended up being quite similar across countries — they gave the other 32,000 people the same qualities and had them rank them in order of perceived leadership effectiveness.

Overwhelmingly, respondents said they would prefer leaders who incorporated more "feminine" styles, for example those who could build consensus in order to get things done, and who expressed themselves more openly and honestly than a leader in a closed power system. In addition, two-thirds of the sample agreed with the statement that the world would be a better place if men thought more like women, with young men and women and some subgroups — Japanese men, for example — more likely to endorse such statements than other participants.

That said, gender isn't necessarily the optimal way to frame good leadership, Gerzama and others acknowledge. Rather, it's a flexible blend of positive and often differing attributes, whether they are traditionally masculine, traditionally feminine or gender-free. Businesses that use such strategies — Tom's Shoes, which donates a pair of shoes to someone in need for every pair it sells, or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology AgeLab, where students must wear a special suit mimicking the physical losses of older adults before they can design products — will emerge winners, he predicts.

"Empathy, for example, is sort of a catalyst for innovation today."

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.

Further reading

  • Antonakis, J., Avolio, B. J., & Sivasubramaniam, N. (2003). Context and leadership: An examination of the nine-factor full-range leadership theory using the Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire.The Leadership Quarterly, 14(3), 261–295.
  • Chin, J. L. (2013). Diversity Leadership: Influence of ethnicity, gender, and minority status. Open Journal of Leadership, 2, 1–10.
  • Chin, J. L. (in press). Diversity and Leadership. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. 
  • Eagly, A. H., Johannesen-Schmidt, M. C., van Engen, M. L. (2003). Transformational, transactional, and laissez-faire leadership styles: A meta-analysis comparing women and men.Psychological Bulletin, 129(4), 569– 591.
  • Gerzama, J., D'Antonio, M. (2013). The Athena doctrine: How women (and the men who think like them) will rule the future. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Kennedy, J. A., & Kray, L. J. (in press). Who is willing to sacrifice ethical values for money and social status? Gender differences in reactions to ethical compromises. Social Psychological & Personality Science.
  • Koenig, A. M., Eagly, A. H., Mitchell, A. A., Ristikari, T. (2011). Are leader stereotypes masculine? A meta-analysis of three research paradigms. Psychological Bulletin, 137(4), 616– 642.
  • Kumra, S., Simpson, R., Burke, R. J. (Eds.) (in press). The Oxford Handbook of Gender in Organizations. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.