Women aren’t always superstar leaders…as Ursula von der Leyen illustrates


Bronze figure of a running girl, 520-500 BC. Spartan. Photo by Caeciliusinhorto – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0


“Too often…we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought”
– John F. Kennedy

The other day someone gave thanks that Ursula von der Leyen is not a superstar leader in a crisis.

The writer said that the European Commission president’s misjudgements are a clarifying point in the debate over women making better leaders than men.

Ms von der Leyen, it should be remembered, got into a row with drug manufacturers over Covid-19 vaccine doses; decreed, then hurriedly reversed the decision to suspend part of the Brexit deal on Northern Ireland and has presided over a slow vaccine roll-out in the EU. In early February, according to news reports, German finance minister Olaf Scholz described the European Commission’s vaccination strategy as a “total s***-show”.

On February 23, EU Affairs ministers pointedly said Ms von der Leyen’s Commission could be more useful. And one EU diplomat subsequently noted: “The single biggest contribution of the Commission to freedom of movement and the easing of travel restrictions in the Schengen area would be to ensure the swift delivery of vaccines including from AstraZeneca.”

All of this has been pretty bad news for the EU, for Ms von der Leyen and ultimately, for the bracing theory that putting a woman in charge means everything will go right.

As soon as this point is made people start to throw out names. New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, Germany’s Angela Merkel, Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen and Finland’s Sanna Marin are the ones who generally figure on the “women-make-better-leaders” list.

Researchers have already started to study if it’s true that female leaders are more effective and more likely to deliver good care (of every sort) and good outcomes to their people.

The initial analysis has been encouraging for women but some observers complain that it should not be seen as anything more than an echo chamber for a particular moment in time. The sample, they say, is too small – only 19 leaders of the 194 countries studied were female, for instance – and it would be quite wrong to use this to lionise a leader just because she’s a woman.

I agree. A great leader could be a woman but all women are not great leaders. (Click here for an earlier blog I wrote about how women politicians, much like their male counterparts, have a pretty mixed record.)

I think there are several very competent women (indeed, some of the ones mentioned above) and there are some moderately competent ones, as well as the incompetent brigade that brings up the rear. In that respect, women are like men – sometimes excellent, other times, middling, passable or quite bad.

Do women have different skillsets from men? It’s fair to say that many women have more of a nurturing instinct because of their biological destiny bearing and rearing children. But that doesn’t mean all women (and all women leaders) are the political equivalent of Mother Teresa, compassionate and selfless.

Think about Margaret Thatcher. Mrs Gandhi. They were mostly competent but not particularly compassionate or selfless. And they did hardly anything to help the larger cause of women in public life.

Finally, of course, there were the women of Sparta. More warlike than their men, they urged them not to return home from battle in defeat, better to die on the field. One account of a mother whose sons had run away from battle and come to her, has her saying: “Where have you come now in your cowardly flight, vile varlets? Do you intend to slink in here whence you came forth?” And she pulled up her garment.

They were hard women, they of Sparta. Not particularly given to peace, love and the milk of human kindness.