Speaking with Authority (2001)

Management Style

Leading by Consensus – Decisively

“[In women’s campaigns] it seems like there are more people at the table, literally. Instead of the four or five people in the room, there are 15 or 20.”
— Pollster

Decisiveness is Essential

Voters of both genders believe that a woman candidate would bring a different style of leadership to the governor’s office. They believe that women are better than men at working with other people and building consensus in the decision-making process. Women also are viewed as being more inclusive than men and as valuing collaboration over political interests.

On the other hand, voters believe men are better than women at making quick decisions and controlling unruly groups like state legislators to get results. Voters wonder whether a woman candidate for governor can be action-oriented enough to deal with crises and to act decisively.

In the focus groups, voters often felt that women candidates for governor presented themselves too passively. A forceful, decisive style – including a confident speaking voice – is important to demonstrate strength.

But Don’t Toss Those Collaborative Traits

Women candidates don’t have to toss aside their collaborative traits. According to the focus groups, the public perceives consensus building as an advantage. However, candidates simply need to be mindful of the “collaboration-breeds-indecision” stereotype and balance collaboration with decisiveness.

As the chart below indicates, party affiliation plays a significant role in how voters perceive a candidate’s management abilities. Republicans, regardless of gender, have an advantage over their Democratic counterparts. They are viewed as more decisive and better at getting results. Men, regardless of party, are thought to be better at managing a crisis, although Republican women are viewed as better crisis managers than Democratic women.

“[The candidate] is much more of a consensus kind of person who really wants to listen. And I remember recalling that at that time she was being criticized … maybe she’s not a really strong leader because she’s more of a consensus builder.”
– Finance Director

In describing the ideal woman candidate for governor, participants in the focus groups said someone who gives a “clear statement of issues” and has the “ability to stand behind issues.” One participant stated that his ideal candidate would “not be a waffler on issues.”

Balancing a Collaborative Style with Decisiveness

Former Vermont Governor Madeline Kunin – who was first elected in 1984 and served three terms in office – demonstrated that she could be an accomplished, decisive leader and a consensus builder. Kunin, a Democrat, acknowledged that a woman’s leadership style often differs from a man’s. “I learned my negotiating skills early, with four children at the table,” she told the National Journal in 1986.

Kunin was aware that a woman governor could be vulnerable if she wasn’t decisive and if she didn’t stand firmly behind the issues she believed in. During her tenure, she delivered on a promise to make public kindergarten available to all Vermont school districts and was dubbed “the iron lady” for sticking to her guns in contentious negotiations.

Most notable among her policy accomplishments was her strategy for addressing growth issues in Vermont: She built consensus through a series of public hearings on the state growth management plan.

For Candidates

  1. Run a tight ship. One small measure of an elected official’s decisiveness is whether she meets deadlines – her own and other people’s. Making campaign announcements, filing official forms, presenting findings of a study on time all create an impression. That impression becomes part of an image and reputation that determines public perception.
  2. Don’t equivocate on an issue or a vote. Your colleagues are a critical group in shaping the perception of your abilities to lead in higher office. Changing your vote or consistently waiting to see how the caucus votes broadcasts your indecisiveness.
  3. Don’t be afraid to challenge your opponent during debates and in your television ads. Reluctance to criticize your opponent can be viewed as being “soft” and indecisive. Remain direct and avoid an abrasive tone.
  4. Return press calls promptly. The press have a hand in determining how you are perceived by voters – whether you have the decisiveness, as well as the temperament, to handle higher office. DO NOT AVOID THEM. Answer questions directly. Don’t fudge. Ask, if you need more details to fully answer a question. Be friendly, careful, clear and firm.
  5. Take the microphone. If and when you make high profile decisions or cast courageous votes, it won’t matter if no one knows.