The most significant shift in leadership is unlikely to come as a result of technology, a new game-changing theory, or changes in the way top schools prepare future leaders, says Sydney Finkelstein, Steven Roth Professor of Management. Rather it will be the inevitable result of a simple fact: Girls today are outperforming boys.
The discrepancy is so great that many colleges and universities have improved their average tests scores simply by admitting more women. It’s no longer unusual for undergraduate classes to be 60 percent female, or even more.
Today about one third of students at elite business schools are women. Finkelstein believes that percentage will increase sharply in the coming decades because the pool of qualified women is now much larger than ever before. “The march of the numbers is going to be powerful, and we’re going to see more and more women as senior executives and as CEOs,” Finkelstein says.
Finkelstein has written scores of academic papers on executive decision-making, and his many books include the No. 1 bestseller “Why Smart Executives Fail.” His answer to the title question, documented in dozens of case studies, is that leaders succumb to an almost biblical list of character flaws, from greed and pride to obstinacy and, almost to a person, a failure to listen.
We can be certain that human nature will change little in the future, but a greater proportion of women in executive roles could shift the decision-making dynamic. For one, the dictatorial chief executive could fall out of vogue. “At the risk of stereotyping 50 percent of the population—and this is backed up by some research—there are some central tendencies in the management styles of women versus men,” Finkelstein says. “Women tend to be more collaborative. They tend to work better in teams, and they tend to be better at communication.”
As more women ascend to the C-suite, they will likely bring with them a more inclusive culture. Perhaps more importantly, Finkelstein says, leadership teams will be more diverse. After all, men are not going to disappear; rather than 90 percent men and 10 percent women, the ratio will begin to approach 50-50.
“People who think they’re right all the time, people who don’t listen well, and the tendency to have an imperial CEO—all these things become easier to manage with a diverse team,” Finkelstein says.
“It’s not that human nature is going to change, but the thing that could change—and this may be more hopeful thinking—is that leaders will have greater self-awareness,” Finkelstein says. “And diversity is a good thing in that regard.”