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Gender and Leadership Style

By Selwyn Ryan

 In an interesting interview with one of the country’s me­dia houses—not the 

Express—Prime Minister Kam­la Persad-Bissessar said a number of things which invite comment. She indicated that she enjoyed her job, but that it was hard and demanding. She also in­dicated that it was perhaps harder for a woman than for a man. I agree with her claim that the PM job was hard and required her to be multihanded, in that the occupant had to perform multiple roles at the same time.

 Even though the PM does not have a specific ministry, as prime minister, she had to be knowledgeable about a wide range of policy and political issues. She, likewise, had to be sensitive to what others are doing (or not doing) and generally had to manage the coun­try at large. As Prime Min­ister, she also had to be aware of what was taking place in the region and, also, in the world around. If she is leader of the party, as is usually the case, she has other cri­ti­cal tasks to undertake. She also has to be a good “representative”, and to be accountable to her constituency on a na­tional scale. No wonder they get grey overnight as did Tony Blair and now, Barack Obama. Stress tells its own story.

In this complex political crossroad, success depends on how the various roles are per­ceived, integrated, and juggled. 

It also depends on how the job of leader is perceived by other players. Proverbial “lagahoos” are everywhere and are often at work, deep into the night. 

Kamla rightly observed that in a “picong” cultural environment such as Trinidad and Tobago is, a leader cannot be thin-skinned since one does not know who is loyal and who is not. 

Most times, one does not know where the buck stops or, indeed, where the puck is. In an open democratic society, people invariably want something from the State, or to avoid something, and push their respective envelopes without bothering about a queue or responsibility to the whole. The concern is with rights and entitlements.

Politics has been described in many noble and cynical ways. 

British MP Edmund Burke once described policy as “philosophy in action”. 

For American Prof Harold Lasswell, it is about “who gets what, when, why and how”. 

Politics and policymaking have also been likened to a pinball machine, in which the shots played have unintended and unknown knock-on effects.

Kamla complains that people pay more attention to her dress, shawl, shoes and hat and less to what she says about public policy. 

What should be of concern, however, are not these “distractions” but the suggestion that women cannot do the Prime Minister’s job. This is plain sexism, she insists. This is what is happening in respect of claims about an invisible cabal. It’s based on the prejudice that as a woman, I am too weak to govern in my own right and that women have to have men pulling the strings. Well, that’s not true. I listen to a wide range of opinions. You have to, in this position, “but I take my own de­­­-

ci­sions. I am my own woman and was so long before I became PM”.

Kamla claims that women may make better consensual policymakers than men since managing families with children and grandchildren are roles which provide good training for certain tasks. 

“Knowing how to run a home and ensuring how the needs of each person are met is the best leadership training you can have.”

The question as to what is the most appropriate style for women leaders in contemporary society is difficult to answer. What is best practice? There is the tough type such as that of Margaret Thatcher of the United Kingdom and Golda Meir of Israel’s style, and also that of Angela Merkel of Germany, who is now in her third term as Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany. Of the latter, it is said that “she governs with a steady hand and (the German) people clearly like that. They have confidence in her and she is unpretentious.”

It is noted that unlike some other leaders, she does her own grocery shopping and buys her clothes “off the rack. It is a style that serves her well with an electorate that does not yearn for radical change or for charismatic leaders after the turmoil of the 20th century”.

What emerges from this preliminary analysis is that there is no unique template which Kamla might wish to consider if she were looking for a model. What is a best prac­tice depends on the personality needs of the leader, the history and political culture of the nation and its State institutions, the size of the polity, the specific historical tasks and needs, and the constitutional structure of the country.

“Fitness to govern” is also determined by health issues. All leaders have illnesses of various kinds, at various times. Illness might disable a king, a queen or a minister. In a sense, leadership might be a wreath placed upon the head of he or she who wears the crown. Leaders do not often recognise that they are ill, or if they do, do not always consider the illness as serious enough for them to stand down or make room for others. Recent TV documentaries (Yes Minister or House of Cards) have given us glimpses of how leaders become captive without being aware that they are political prisoners.

Jack Warner suggests that this has happened to Kamla. He claims that a cabal has been allowed to take over critical decision-making because Kamla is often not in any phy­sical condition to take charge of things, an accusation which Kamla repeatedly denies. 

What does Kamla have planned for us in the new year as she readies herself for battle in 2014? Does she have a plan to make over her image. She tells us she has a plan. “What I reaffirm is to be a better wife, mother and grand­mother; to be a better sister and friend. To push the boundaries of compassion so that despite my public duties —no one feels that I have not given enough of myself. Politically, what I reaffirm to do is to listen more, appreciate the needs and wants of the people more, extend the boundaries of social justice and reach even further so that those families we have not yet reached, we do reach.”

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