Inclusive leadership, COVID and sustainability

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With Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former finance minister of Nigeria, at the head of the World Trade Organization, the number of women in power has grown further in this pandemic year, especially in economic and financial institutions like the US Treasury, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Central Bank. The fact that Okonjo-Iwela is also a woman of colour marks another step towards having a global leadership which is more representative of the world population than it used to be.

But, beyond representation, is having a more diverse leadership also likely to enhance our capacity to address our most pressing challenges, i.e. the pandemic, climate change and social inequalities? In other words, does political inclusivity ensure better sustainability?

Gendered or inclusive leadership?

Take COVID. Much has been said about a hypothetical correlation between having women in power and better policy solutions for COVID. Why would that be the case? Do women exercise a different kind of leadership than men and, in doing so, do they better manage to tackle needs which are specific to our times?

Leadership studies do not speak with a single voice when it comes to detecting differences in the style of male and female leaders. And yet, most of the literature suggests that socially constructed gender stereotypes play a role in defining individual approaches to both decision-making and policy preferences. Female leaders, in particular, tend to be more interpersonally oriented, and their lead more democratic, horizontal, and participatory. They exercise their lead together with their team, usually a diverse one, which they tend to empower.

Women leaders on average also tend to be more qualified than their male counterparts as they are frequently expected to ‘demonstrate more’ to make their way in politics, and they tend to be more responsive to their constituents.

The traits identified by this scholarship connect with a concept, inclusive leadership, found in organisational theory, social psychology, and management studies. Inclusive leadership describes the way in which business leaders adapt to the globalisation of markets, and the opening to custumers from all over the world, including emerging markets. With their different ideas and preferences, these customers require organisations to move away from homogenous backgrounds, also in terms of staff and managers, and decision-making.

Organisational theory has also been talking, for a long time, of a ‘business case for diversity’ with many empirical studies supporting the argument. Inclusive leadership concerns not exclusively who is in power, but also how they exercise power. Inclusive leadership is also a style of setting directions and influencing others, where feedback and opinions are actively sought for by the main executive. It is a collaborative way of running an organisation, which pays attention to treating different situations differently, where cultural intelligence and awareness of talents and biases count as much as the commitment to deliver. Rather, they determine the ability to deliver policies which take more needs into account.


And here we arrive at the nexus between inclusive leadership, public policy and sustainability. With an inclusive approach, leaders pay attention not only to gender or ethnic differences. They also better take into account the different situations generated by growing socioeconomic inequalities in rich countries and the establishment of a new middle class in others; of ageing and demographic bubbles; climate change; health crises and human mobility.

An established corpus of political science literature points to the fact that women have specific policy preferences. These have not only to do with policies ‘for’ women, but also with specific areas of decision-making such as education, health, environment and social affairs, which women legislators tend to work on more than men do. It is plain that the main reason explaining such preferences has to do with millennia of women’s roles being associated with care work, be it about persons or the natural environment enabling their wellbeing. More recently, women have also been increasingly given political roles in those fields, as they are usually considered less important than economics or defence. This said, women also prioritise issues associated with ‘care’ in the international sphere, such as international aid, peace efforts, and deprioritise military spending.

Many reasons beyond social justice, thus, seem to support the inclusion of gender equality as an objective of the UN’s 2030 sustainable development agenda.

Political leadership and crises

Back to COVID, some early academic studies show that, in countries led by women, lock-down measures have been adopted earlier and the COVID death toll is lower. These studies seem to support the thesis that female leadership has an impact. While men are keener on avoiding economic risks, women are more ready to take economic risks in the short term to avoid other risks, such as the loss of life. This risk aversion strategy exercised by women, in short, would also ensure a more sustainable economic recovery in the aftermath of COVID. Yet, these results are disputed as others point out that the size of the sample of countries led by women (ca. 16 on 194!) is too small to make any conclusive statistical inference.

If we take into account international organisations or crucial political positions behind the heads of government, in the last couple of years the number of female global leaders has increased. This should not come as a total surprise: organisations tend to resort to female leadership in times of crisis. “When women are finally given a chance to prove themselves in a senior position, they are handed something that is already broken and where the chances of failure are high,” according to the Harvard Business Review.

Women leaders are chosen when top positions lose some of their attractiveness and authoritativeness. The appointments of Von Der Leyen at the highest point of success of Eurosceptic parties and of Okonjo-Iwela when WTO has already lost most of its legitimacy, are two examples.

Leadership and authoritativeness are concepts that have historically been built around the images of men and are associated with a specific conception of masculinity. This sees powerful men as those who have the ability to impose decisions on others, be it on a personal or geopolitical level.

In a context where fragilities need to be taken into account and followers convinced that we need to move towards a sustainable living paradigm, we can see that this is not necessarily what is most needed today. A more equal and diverse representation is in itself a sign, and probably a product, of a more sustainable democratic system.

With the above, I do not mean to imply that men cannot exercise inclusive leadership. But if our societies are still as caught in traditional gender roles as it seems they are, we should all strive to de-gender our conceptions of leadership, and let more women lead.

Inclusive leadership needs to become the dominant leadership style if we want to engage in a political direction which focuses on sustainability, combining economic growth with respect for the planet and all its inhabitants. We must either leave behind traditionally gendered conceptions of authoritativeness, or we better have many more women in power.


Costanza Hermanin is a pro-European political activist and a professional with experience as public official, researcher, think tanker, human rights advocate, lecturer, and party leader. Her fellowship project at the School of Transnational Governance focuses on increasing the participation and impact of women in politics, based on her experience developing the first school aimed at political parties for the political empowerment of women in Italy, #PrimeDonne.