Painted Wolves: Women Leading Through a Pandemic

A pack of painted wolves, also called African wild dogs, against a grassy background. One is standing and looking to the right, and one is lying down looking toward the camera. Both have their mouths open. Parts of two more are visible at the right and left edges of the frame. The photo accompanies a blog post that compares the pack tactics of painted wolves to the collective leadership approach taken by women heads of state during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Crises provide opportunity for women leaders to distinguish themselves as effective and decisive. Research about how women leaders responded to the COVID-19 pandemic has yielded six critical crisis leadership skills of powerful women.

Recently on The Science of Personality, cohosts Ryne Sherman, PhD, and Blake Loepp spoke with Kelsey Medeiros, PhD, associate professor of management at the University of Nebraska Omaha, about her new book, Painted Wolves: A New Model of Leadership from Powerful Women. She provides an in-depth look at how women heads of state addressed the COVID-19 pandemic more effectively than their men counterparts.

An organizational psychologist whose research areas include gender-related issues in the workplace, Kelsey has published research about crisis response, ethics, and creativity. On the podcast, she discussed the origin of her book, leadership during crisis, and six skills in which women in leadership excel.

A New Model of Leadership from Powerful Women

The inspiration for Kelsey’s book title came from a South African safari, where she learned that lions are far less effective hunters than painted wolves. Whereas lions kill only 30% of the time, painted wolves, also called African wild dogs, kill 80% of the time because they use pack tactics. “Why are we telling people to [lead] like lions?” Kelsey mused. “We have a whole animal kingdom to choose from.”

Her interest in women in leadership intensified during the beginning of the pandemic while she researched the effectiveness of different leaders. She observed parallels in the leadership approaches of women heads of state and began writing.

The book references a Time article assessing 11 countries considered to have the best pandemic responses.1 Although they constituted only 11 percent of the global heads of state at the time, women led six of the countries.

Two leadership skills stood out to Kelsey as she assessed the leaders listed: decisiveness and quick actions. A negative stereotype casts women as indecisive and risk averse. The women described in the article acted in the opposite way. They were able to assess the data pragmatically, identify acceptable risks, and implement clear, effective decisions with empathy.

Leadership During a Crisis

The skills that the leaders demonstrated accord with Hogan research into leadership during crises. One key competency that people look for in a leader during crisis is decisiveness, which entails evaluating data and sticking to decisions. Kelsey theorized that one of the reasons these women leaders were so effective was that they exceeded the extremely high performance standards imposed by society. Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel holds a PhD in quantum chemistry, for example.

“Several stereotypes hold women back,” Kelsey observed. The tendency to think of leaders as male can be difficult to change. In a leadership class that Kelsey teaches, more than 90% of students choose a male leader as the subject for their semester-long project.

One contributing factor in the gender disparity among heads of state may come from stereotypes about agency and communality. People tend to associate men with agency and women with communality. People also tend to associate only agency—not communality—with leadership. These socially established concepts can influence our perception of who should lead.

Kelsey noted that when men show communality, they tend to be applauded. But when women show agency, they can be penalized for displaying ambition. “Those stereotypes infiltrate our decision-making and our thinking,” she said. “We don’t get to see the actual skills that the leaders or potential leaders bring to the table.”

Six Skills for Women Leaders

In Painted Wolves, Kelsey outlined six skills that made women leaders successful in managing a crisis such as a global pandemic:

  1. Preparation – Women tend to have to be overprepared and overqualified to reach elite leadership roles. Instead of relying on charisma and improvisation, women in leadership have the advantage of thorough preparedness.
  2. Issue-driven focus – Instead of viewing themselves as the solution to all problems, women in leadership want to help fix a specific problem or issue. In many cases, they want to find the pragmatic solution, not be the heroic solution.
  3. Collective leadership – Painted wolves work as a pack, not lone hunters. Modern leadership, whether in politics or business, is based on achievement via collective effort. In Hogan terms, effective leaders build and maintain high-performing teams.
  4. Willingness to learn – Countries that were effective in their pandemic responses had experienced similar crises before. Just as those leaders applied past knowledge to the present crisis, leaders must be willing to seek and apply accurate feedback about their performance.
  5. Emotion management – Women leaders are not emotionless; rather, they use their emotions appropriately. High emotional intelligence allows them to manage their own and others’ emotions.
  6. Risk taking – Leaders need to demonstrate confident risk taking. However, the risks women are willing to take can be different from those of men. During the initial stages of the pandemic, women were more likely to take economic risks by shutting down their countries, whereas men were more likely to risk lives by keeping their countries open.

“We can learn so many things from these women that are applicable for all of us. They just happen to be the ones who demonstrated them on a global scale,” Kelsey said.

More Opportunities for All

Rather than seeking to place women in leadership positions, Kelsey advocated for a more broadly inclusive approach to leadership. Gender is neither the only nor the main criteria for diversifying global leadership. She challenged people to ask this question: “How can we create more opportunities for everyone so we can have more effective leaders overall?”

Listen to this conversation in full on episode 85 of The Science of Personality. Never miss an episode by following us anywhere you get podcasts. Cheers, everybody!


  1. Bremmer, I. (2021, February 23). The Best Global Responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic, 1 Year Later. Time.