Strategic Thinkers: Herminia Ibarra and Otilia Obodaru Credentials: Ibarra is a professor of organizational behavior and the Cora Chaired Professor of Leadership and Learning at Insead in Fontainebleau, France; her most recent book is Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career published by Harvard Business School Press, 2002. Obodaru is a PhD student in organizational behavior at Insead. Big Idea: Women are judged to be less visionary than men by their male peers and it just may be holding them back from leadership positions Article: "Women and the Vision Thing" by Herminia Ibarra and Otilia Obodaru, published by Harvard Business Review, January 2009
Women make better leaders than men-true or false? Well it all depends on how you look at the data. A new research study from Insead, one of the largest global graduate business schools, found that female leaders in their executive education programs received higher ratings than male leaders in most of 10 leadership dimensions except one: envisioning.
What is envisioning? Insead's definition is "articulating a compelling vision, mission, and strategy that incorporate a multicultural and diverse perspective and connect employees, shareholders, suppliers, and customers on a global scale." In other words, it's the vision thing that many think is an essential quality of leadership.
In a recent article for the Harvard Business Review, Insead Professor Herminia Ibarra and doctoral student Otilia Obodaru analyzed the leadership research to get to the bottom of this finding. The research itself was based on 360-degree evaluations (based on 10 Critical Components of Global Leadership of 2,816 executives from 149 countries enrolled in executive education programs at Insead. These managers filled out self-assessments and invited subordinates, peers, supervisors, suppliers and customers to evaluate them on 10 critical leadership dimensions. In all, 22,244 observers participated in this study. Twenty percent of the executives assessed were women and 27 percent of the evaluating observers were women.
Two findings surprised the authors:
There was no evidence of a "modesty effect." Women rated themselves significantly higher than men rated themselves on four of the ten leadership dimensions. On the remaining qualities, women and men gave themselves ratings that were about the same.
There was no evidence of gender bias by male observers. Male observers scored female leaders significantly higher than they scored male leaders on seven dimensions and female observers scored them significantly higher on eight.
But the finding that the authors examined in greater detail in their article had to do with this vision thing. Female leaders were rated lower by their male observers (but not by women) on envisioning. In particular, it was the male peers that rated women significantly lower on envisioning. Female peers, on the other hand, rated women higher on envisioning than they did men-"contrary to the frequently heard claim that women compete rather than cooperate with one another," the authors say. Male superiors and subordinates rated male and female leaders about the same on envisioning.
Looking at previous studies on this topic was not very useful to helping the authors interpret their data since the existing research tended to focus on how leaders are rated by subordinates or asked participants to rate hypothetical male and female leaders. So the authors said they "turned to the experts who were living this reality every day"—the women participating in Insead's executive education programs—and asked them how they would interpret the data. This led to three possible explanations.