In 1999, 575 Baker & McKenzie partners elected Ms. Lagarde as the first woman chair of the global law firm. Eight years later, at 51 she achieved elite political status when President Sarkozy tapped her as France’s Minister of Finance, becoming the first G-7 country female finance chief. Most recently, she set her compass for Washington to become the first female boss at the International Monetary Fund, to fill the vacancy of the disgraced IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
Lagarde’s business, legal, financial, and political savvy provide a befitting blend for the IMF post; few seriously challenge her qualifications, only her nationality. The emerging countries, mainly the so-called BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) are pressing to break the six-decade European stranglehold on the top IMF post because, according to a joint statement issued by their representatives, “nationality undermines the legitimacy of the Fund.”
Lagarde dismissed the nationality issue at a recent press conference announcing her candidacy. “Being European shouldn’t be a plus, but it shouldn’t be a minus either,” she said, citing her experience “as a lawyer, a business leader, a minister, and a woman.”
A woman? It turns out Lagarde champions a Freudian angle to leadership. She says it’s all about psyche.
Women are better leaders than men
During an appearance last fall on ABC's "This Week" and following tough talk on fiscal austerity and the evils of budget deficits, Lagarde dove headlong into the squishy topic of gender leadership. Her cardinal thesis: Women are better leaders than men. “We don’t necessarily project our own egos into cutting a deal, [getting] our point across, convincing people, reducing them to…a partner lost in the process.”
Then with a hint of mettle she cut to the chase: “We inject less libido, less testosterone.”
I give Lagarde’s gender theory high marks when tested against the political and leadership culture in the US – one that has become indisputably partisan and polarized. Our male-dominated political leadership is unable to reverse this trend and is largely seen as the polarizing force.
Ideology has become so rigid that politicians’ stances, even on complex, multidimensional issues, are predictable – often before the debate begins. Testosterone and libido do seem to rule inside Washington’s beltway. Spin and gridlock invariably trump authenticity and reconciliation.
Confidence without hubris
Lagarde succeeded me as Chair of Baker & McKenzie in 1999 before tackling France’s top Finance post. Our male-dominated law partners endlessly reminded the boss that management’s mandate was to tolerantly and benevolently “herd 575 cats.” Lagarde always viewed her partners as professionals and graciously accepted her thankless and near impossible role.
The French solicitor successfully grew this demanding brood of counselors and its business, stepping down unscathed in 2005. I observed up close her trademark qualities: uncompromising independence, paired with a healthy dose of confidence, but without a hint of hubris.
This was demonstrated again at the recent press briefing when questioned about her lack of “economist” credentials. She conceded that the economic community would not bestow her with an honorary degree, but cautioned observers not to be fooled by one’s expertise, or seeming lack of it “My approach has always been to pretend that I understand nothing and to force people who are in the know to explain their position.”
Voted in 2009 as Europe’s top finance minister by the Financial Times, Lagarde brings a no-nonsense authenticity to problem solving. Advocating tax cuts for her countrymen to the French Parliament, she took a “Bronx-like” swipe at the French elite, admonishing them to stop pontificating and turn theory into reality: “I would like to tell you: Enough thinking, already. Roll up your sleeves.” Lagarde went on to cite French writer Alexis de Tocqueville’s "Democracy in America," exhorting the French to work harder, earn more, and pay lower taxes on their wealth.
Studies support Lagarde's gender theory
Lagarde’s gender braggadocio is supported by empirical data. Leadership studies consistently show women outperform men in the key area of decision-making: They tend to use a more democratic, participative style, while men take a more autocratic, directive approach. These studies conclude that women’s traditional approach to negotiation, mediation, facilitation, and communication is more effective than men’s traditional insistence on power and control.
So if women make better bosses, why do few make it to the top? A Pew Report cites a host of reasons including gender discrimination, resistance to change, a self-serving “old boys club,” and family responsibilities; but also confirms that women inherently have what it takes to be good leaders.
As the IMF executive board evaluates the credentials, professional and geographic, of the managing director candidates, it would do well to also consider Lagarde’s “id” theory of leadership. Mr. Strauss-Kahn, Silvio Berlusconi, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Eliot Spitzer, John Edwards, Bill Clinton, Mark Sanford, John Ensign, and now, Anthony Weiner (to tick off the more prominent libido-driven male leaders) seem to provide fertile evidence that she is on to something.
John Klotsche is a retired partner and former chairman of the executive committee of Baker & McKenzie (1995-1999), the Chicago-based international law firm. He writes fiction and non-fiction short stories.