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Transformational leadership – it’s a female thing

  • 8 March 2023
  • By Ceri Nursaw

This guest blog in the current series on leadership with NCEE has been kindly penned for HEPI by Ceri Nursaw, the Chief Executive of the NCEE.

On International Women’s Day it feels appropriate to talk about female leadership in universities.  With still only seven women CEOs in the FTSE 100 and one-fifth of the world’s top universities led by women, there is still a way to go for parity.  As we move into the twelfth year of our entrepreneurial leadership programme, we will once again work with higher education leaders who will review their leadership style and consider their future career trajectories.  

We believe that anyone can be an entrepreneurial leader – but in a way that suits their personality and style. Sometimes we adopt styles, ones that we have seen others use to good effect or ones that feel most comfortable with our own individual ways. Research has shown that female leaders tend to adopt transformational leadership over a more transactional style (Eagly et al, 2003).  So what does that mean?

Transformational leadership is when a leader works with their team to guide change through influence and inspiration. It is closely aligned with entrepreneurial leadership, as both styles challenge the status quo and role model creative and innovative behaviours.  

Bass (1985) described transformational leadership as having four roles:

  1. Inspirational motivation – the leader inspires their team to feel they are part of something important and worthwhile.
  2. Individualised attention – the leader builds individual relationships with each team member feeling valued and supported.  This celebrates diversity.
  3. Intellectual stimulation – the leader encourages their team to learn and grow, and to challenge the existing ways of doing things.  Emphasis is placed on strategic thinking and constructive challenge.
  4. Idealised influence – a leader with personal integrity and values.  They are authentic, open and fair.

So is this a natural style for female leaders or one that we have learnt?  Eagly et al (2003) research showed that female leaders are less likely to use a leadership style that portrays them in an unfavourable light with their team. Additionally, Saint-Michel (2018) found that gender stereotypes often encourage a particular type of leadership behaviour. The research found that team members have ‘stereotyped expectations which confine both male and female leaders to stereotypical leader roles’. 

We have to find our own leadership style, which is authentic and not beholden to gender stereotypes.  As universities we should continue to promote an inclusive culture enabling both male and female leaders to be themselves without fear of perception bias (Saint-Michel and Petit, 2015). 

Women still hold the minority of senior leadership roles in our universities. Adopting transformational leadership allows women to lead effectively and authentically.  In the 20 years since Eagly’s research, workplaces have changed for the better.  Our expectations of women in society and as leaders have changed.  We can adopt any leadership style, but if transformational leadership comes more naturally to female leaders then that is surely a good thing. I would argue that transformational leadership in our universities is far more effective than transactional leadership. In higher education, our teams want to feel part of something important and worthwhile, feel valued and supported, are intellectually stimulated and are working with a leader with integrity and values.  So let us all adopt more transformational leadership styles. 

NCEE’s Entrepreneurial Leadership 2023 programme starts this month.  

Bass, B. M. (1985).Leadership and performance beyond expectation. New York: Free Press.

Eagly, A. H. (2003).  Transformational, transactional, and laissez-faire leadership styles: a meta-analysis comparing women and men.  Psychological Bulletin (2003). 

Saint-Michel, S. E. (2018).  Leader gender stereotypes and transformational leadership: Does leader sex make the difference?  M@n@gement 2018/3 (Vol. 21)

Saint-Michel, S. E. and Petite, V. C. (2015).  Becoming more themselves:  How can global organisations promote women’s authentic leadership.  In F. W. Ngunjiri and S. R. Madsen (Eds.).  Women and Leadership:  Research Theory and Practice (pp 119-139).  

1 comment

  1. albert wright says:

    I am not convinced that Transformational Leadership is ” … a female thing”.

    The model and the thinking behind it should not be gender neutral.

    Leadership is personal and individual and different styles, skills, experience and knowledge will be required in different places and times, even in the same institution.

    What I do agree with is diverse leadership teams, in terms of gender, ethnicity and personality

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