Partner, Powerful. New Role Models for Women Leaders in 2021 (2021)

Paul Vanderbroeck

Partner, Powerful. New Role Models for Women Leaders in 2021

Three alternative role models give hope for gender balance in leadership in the near future: 


  • The Parent, the woman leader who mixes rather than separates parental and professional responsibilities. 
  • The Partner, the woman leader who shares leadership. 
  • The Powerful, the woman leader who successfully manages her own career.


Recent developments have given rise to examples that provide women with more choice of what type of leader they can be. They offer alternatives to traditional male models while providing equal career opportunities. They will inspire more women to aspire to a senior leadership career. Because these examples are represented by more than one individual and highly visible individuals, they become role models. What's more, these models were already successfully practised by women leaders in the past. 


The pandemic has both accelerated and slowed down developments in gender balance. In many countries, the 2020 health crisis has caused a knee-jerk reaction of the general public to follow archaic forms of leaders: young and fit male war leaders (King Arthur) seconded by elderly male virologists (Merlin the Sorcerer) fighting an inhuman and invisible enemy. SAP fired its first and only woman CEO because she was considered unable to deal with the crisis.Although female heads of government have received praise for handling the CORONA situation in their country, it has not resulted in a more positive attitude towards women leaders. It appears that some established woman leaders have struggled to combine a caring role with a role to mobilise the population against the virusCompassion alone is not enough.  


Simultaneously, striking imbalances in our system have been laid bare: functions such as nursing, underpaid and overwhelmingly performed by women, are now being considered essential. Other developments have accelerated by proving the success of the three models of women leadership described below. It raises the question of what will the world look like after the pandemic when it comes to gender balance? 


Previously, I have argued that the path to success for women is individual: by changing the context (a structural change to find an organisation that better suits you), by navigating the context (using what’s there to your advantage) or by leveraging the context (taking charge of your leadership development). Finding your own individual way gets you to the top faster than patiently waiting for a transformation of the organisation to open the door for you. The three new role models that have emerged represent such ways of dealing with an existing context by changing, navigating or leveraging it. The post-pandemic world should offer more opportunities to do so.



The Parent is the leader that breaks with established conventions of separating work from family. She shows the alternative approach of integrating these two significant spheres of one's life. New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern did not leave her new-born behind while travelling to the United Nations in New York. Nor did she leave her in the hotel room, but took her to work. Her Finnish colleague, Sanna Marin, continues to live in her apartment with her husband and toddler. She uses the residence of the Prime Minister only for official occasions. Both mothers have career partners who share child care. Both leaders are considered exemplary in their handling of the COVID-19 situation in their countries.


Isabella, Spain's late medieval queen and sponsor of Columbus, blurred the boundaries between work and private life. She brought her children to work to make it easy to switch between leading her country and overseeing their education. In portraits, showing herself at work, her children are often present. Thus, she purposefully presented her leadership model to her followers.


The Parent model has already installed itself across sectors. When she was CEO at Yahoo, Marissa Mayer was a trailblazer in building a child care facility in her office. It's a model that particularly suits high potential leaders able and ambitious to reach senior positions at a younger age. Parenting is an example of navigating the context, i.e. using what's already there in a different way and pushing boundaries to create better circumstances for your success.



The second model is the leader who shares power with another leader to reach better results. Because of political systems still being geared towards single rulers, we see this model currently appear outside governmental structures. Here are two examples. Özlem Türeci has been often in the news in 2020. Founders of BioNTech, she and her husband form the couple behind the Pfizer/ BioNTech vaccine against COVID-19. They truly are the 21st century Pierre et Marie Curie.


After Oracle, global science company Royal DSM has opted for Geraldine Matchett as co-CEO in a gender-balanced leadership team. It results from the insight that an organisation is best led by two individuals with complementary attributes in today's complex world rather than a single CEO. 


Historically, the shared leadership model between Catherine the Great and Prince Gregory Potemkin offers an example. Catherine, Empress of Russia in the 18th century, effectively shared power with her husband Potemkin until his death. They distributed responsibilities based on competencies. Catherine looked after internal affairs, notably the modernisation of Russia. Potemkin led the expansion and build-up of the empire. Although their characters clashed at times, their different personalities allowed them to motivate, inspire, and support each other through their various challenges. 


Nowadays, on a smaller scale, dual-career couples use this model successfully. They too have to lead a complex system, dealing with professional and private challenges on an equal footing.


Partnering is an example of changing the context. It creates a different leadership structure that - for both partners - signifies more than the sum of two individuals. 



The third model is the leader who reaches top-level positions by climbing the career ladder without a quota or needing to adopt a male stance. Rather than depending on a traditional career structure, they take their development in their own hands. They astutely develop their career through achieving results and while remaining authentic


The Biden Administration will feature two women who epitomise this model. Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris developed her career step-by-step. First as a state attorney, then as a senator. Her achievements propelled her to the next step on the career ladder. Harris and Biden have similar careers. First as lawyer or prosecutor, then-senator, then a failed attempt to get the party's nomination for President, then Vice-President. The difference being that Harris has become Vice-President ten years earlier than Biden. Her career is far from over. Janet Yellen, the incoming Secretary of the Treasury and former Chairperson of the Federal Reserve, alternated between academic and government positions. She focused on central bank issues with a clear view on macro-economics. Both women never benefited from a quota but used their difference as an asset by breaking several glass ceilings, including the two cabinet posts they will hold.


Elizabeth I managed her ascent to Queen of England in the 16th century well. She started at a disadvantage. Not only did she have to let her brother and sister go first, they actually suspected her of plotting against them. Later, she faced the competition of Mary Stuart. Elizabeth was careful to make sure that stakeholders positively perceived her actions, whilst at the same time not compromising on her values and thus staying authentic as a leader. What's more, Elizabeth planned for her next career step. Immediately after becoming queen, she presented well-thought-through plans for her government.


Harris and Yellen find their equivalents in Tsai Ing-wen, President of Taiwan, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the EU Commission, Christine Lagarde, Head of the European Central Bank, as well as several female CEOs, for example GM’s Mary Barra.


The career of the Powerful is an example of leveraging the context by taking charge of your own leadership development, using each career step as the launching pad for the next.


Going forward, Parent, Partner, and Powerful offer alternative ways for women to reach the top alongside more traditional career paths. They are based on self-empowerment, innovation and authenticity.


Looking forward to your thoughts. 


Do you know other examples of Parent, Partner or Powerful? 

What could this mean for your own career development as a woman? 

As a leader in an organisation, what could you do to facilitate such alternative career paths?


KDVI Writer's Colony, 2021

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Paul Vanderbroeck

Jun 30, 10:40 AM

For the Partner model, Manfred Kets de Vries has now suggested a set of groundrules

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