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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