First, I must change the question: how can we inspire the next generation of business leaders?
Leadership is not based on gender. We need to be clear. Leadership is not homogenous. Any business needs a diverse range of leadership skills. And a diverse range of people have those skills. The chairman of a business does not lead in the same way as the chief executive. Both are leaders, but they need to work together and complement each other. It is essential to find someone with the appropriate leadership style to fit the role, irrespective of gender. Equally, a business needs varying leadership qualities in different settings and at different times in the organisation’s growth.
One of my pet hates is the way central government and the banks categorise businesses by size. A sole trader hairdresser has little in common with a hi-tech spin out from a university with an experienced management team and venture capital investor. Yet both are labelled SME - small to medium enterprises. In smaller businesses the culture, lines of communication and decision making are often faster and more responsive to customers, the market and staff. Roles and personalities merge in a small business whilst their larger cousins can appear characterless. Neither model is right: both have a place and role to play in the development of a business. The leadership skills are very different too; again neither model is right.
We are familiar with inspirational stories of the determined entrepreneur who stakes everything to set up a business. Yet where are the inspirational stories about how the businesses grew? How did another leader work with the entrepreneur to create a business that fulfilled its potential? Where was the bold leader who challenged our obsession with mergers and acquisitions to look at growing the value in their business to ensure long-term survival and growth?
Family businesses are a useful model here. The best family businesses recognise and develop the talents of the next generation, preparing them to take on the leadership or ownership of the business. This is regardless of whether they are sons or daughters.
We need to encourage the next generation to think about leadership in a radical new way. There is no identikit leader. The challenge is to value and appreciate the differences in the wide range of models. They can inspire anyone — and encourage them to believe they can lead.