Are women fighting hard enough to get to the top?

Getting to the top of any organisation has always required toughness and political skill. If you want to be the chief executive you must be ready to roll up your sleeves and fight it out.

Most debates about getting women onto boards and into top-level jobs revolve around the roles of regulators, policymakers and even headhunters. But if women shy away from the fierce competition needed to come out on top, will they ever get there?

For men, it is quite obvious that if you want to lead the pack, you need to demonstrate your strength and superiority in every situation. Doing whatever it takes may include aggressive negotiations for resources, merciless intimidation and nasty lobbying in dark corners – even the public humiliation of adversaries.

It is not pretty. The fight for leadership can get very ugly indeed in the face of scary market challenges. At the same time, these unseemly management skills do have their upsides: they can align opponents around a common vision, quickly settle open disagreements and prove to all that the winner will do anything and everything to get them where they want to go.

Women, on the other hand, love to talk it out: thoughtful, positive reinforcement at carefully selected points, patient building of trust over time and peace-loving remarks placed here and there to find a consensus that makes everyone comfortable about moving forward. These are wonderful tactics for mediators, pacifiers and selfless value-creators, but not so good for competitors who covet the next chief executive opening.

When many suitors want the only available bride, fighting dirty is compulsory. In the corporate world, the bride is the chief executive job. Women may need to relinquish the elegant lady-in-waiting role they were brought up to play, and get a lot smarter about mastering unfriendly competition.

Who said leading was a walk in the park anyway?

Pino Bethencourt is a professor and leadership expert at IE Business School in Madrid. She is also an author and executive coach.

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