When the going gets tough, hire a woman

António Horta-Osório, spent less than a year in the chief executive’s hot seat at Lloyds Banking Group before caving to the pressures of the job and taking time off. He is not the first, nor will he be the last, starry boss to suffer from “extreme fatigue”.

Last December, Jeff Kindler, chief executive of Pfizer, the pharmaceutical company, resigned in order to “recharge my batteries”. In March, Andy Hornby, the former head of financial group HBOS, abruptly left the helm of Alliance Boots, citing stress after “an intense … five years as CEO of two major companies”. (For all this, he went on a few months later to join Coral the bookmaker as chief executive.) In May, Masataka Shimizu, president of Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), the company at the centre of Japan’s nuclear crisis, resigned as a result of “overwork and lack of sleep”.

The UK’s Health & Safety Executive estimates that 10.8 million working days a year are lost to stress-related problems in the UK.

While stress affects both men and women, there is evidence that gender differences may give women an advantage in dealing with the special pressures of a top job. Women are less likely than men to “go it alone when stressful situations strike”, according to a study from 2000 by a professor of psychology at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles). The article by Shelley Taylor and her colleagues argues that women tend to protect the most vulnerable, value the “tribe” and co-opt the support of other women. This is categorised as a “tend-and-befriend” response. The “tend-and-befriend” response, instead of the fight-or-flight reflex, may be particularly useful to leaders facing the enormous stresses of some executive challenges. While the male boss feels he must fight single-handedly to overcome the beasts in the shadows, the female leader can marshal support from a trusted team and rallying the troops.

Randy Newman is right: it is “lonely at the top”. Perhaps we need a different paradigm of executive leadership – one that includes the female “tend-and-befriend” response.

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The 'Women at the Top' blog is part of a series of online and print publications that focuses on women's achievements in business. With up-to-date news and incisive analysis, the blog will provoke discussion on the role of the world's most prominent businesswomen. www.ft.com/womenblog

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About our bloggers

Liz Bolshaw

Liz Bolshaw is a business journalist and editor. She has been a successful book publisher, online editor, magazine editor and publisher.

She was launch editor of the Europe-wide online community Entrepreneur Country, has published magazines for PwC, 3i, dunhill and Bafta, and launched The Sharp Edge, a magazine for and about entrepreneurs, with Duncan Bannatyne. She is a regular contributor to Thomson Reuters’ Venture Capital Journal.

Her last project for the Financial Times was as editor of the paper’s Business Education magazine.

Rebecca Knight

Rebecca Knight is a freelance journalist based in Boston. She writes regularly for the FT on business education, entrepreneurship, and management.

Andrew Hill

Andrew Hill is an associate editor and the management editor of the FT. He was City editor of the FT and editor of the daily Lombard column on British business and finance from September 2006 to December 2010.

He was the FT’s financial editor from June 2005 to September 2006, with overall responsibility for coverage of companies and markets. Before becoming financial editor, he was the FT’s comment & analysis editor, in charge of the paper’s opinion and features pages.

From 1999 to 2003, he was the FT’s New York bureau chief. He joined the FT in 1988 and has also worked as foreign news editor, UK companies reporter and correspondent in Brussels and Milan.

Pino Bethencourt

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

Lynda Gratton

Lynda Gratton is professor of management practice at London Business School.

Linda Tarr-Whelan

Linda Tarr-Whelan, former ambassador to the UN commission on the status of women, is a Demos distinguished senior fellow.