Not long ago I sat in a room filled with women professionals. During the discussion, many of them expressed the feeling that they have to be more like their male colleagues in order to have a ‘seat at the table’ and enjoy the same opportunities. That’s not unusual. I frequently hear variations of this same comment.
Hearing these talented and accomplished women struggle with this issue and potentially deny the value of who they are, and what they have to offer, causes me concern. To these women and others, I say that what makes you unique, as an individual (and as a woman), is that which may also make you an outstanding leader.
Presenting leadership as a list of carefully defined qualities (like strategic, analytical, and performance-oriented) no longer holds. Instead, true leadership stems from individuality that is honestly and sometimes imperfectly expressed…. Leaders should strive for authenticity over perfection.” ~Sheryl Sandberg
Often we hear others speak about characteristics of good leaders in the form of masculine traits and feminine traits. I don’t believe we can ever generalize that ‘all women’ are a certain way and ‘all men’ are another way. That would be too simplistic. God created each of us much more unique and complex than that.
However, to facilitate this topic lets examine ‘five uniquely female attributes of leadership’ as identified in an article published in the online professional women’s magazine, Propel.
1) Special Intuition:
The concept is that women have a unique ability to see below the surface of a situation or a person and discern a deeper understanding. The article stated, “Great female leaders look beyond numbers and the profit to personalities, agendas, and perspectives.”
For me, intuition often presents itself as a ‘gut feeling’ or knowing. I can’t always explain why I feel a certain way, but it’s always worth exploring. It’s a ‘sense’ about other factors at work or what may really be going on in a situation.
To say that it is uniquely a female attribute may be misleading. Statistics behind Meyers-Briggs personality theory show that only 25% of the general population falls into the ‘Intuitive’ category while 75% land in the ‘Sensing’ category.
Sensing is paying attention to what is actual, present, current and real vs. examining ideas and possibilities and ‘reading between the lines’ such as someone using intuition would do.
A more accurate indicator of a ‘feminine’ trait, as measured by Meyers-Briggs, may be feeling vs. thinking. Statistics show that the majority of males fall in the ‘thinking’ category of making decisions based upon fact and logic. The majority of women fall in the ‘feeling’ category of making decisions taking into consideration others’ points of view and how others will be impacted.
But when it comes to intuition, regardless of your gender and how well you utilize this ability, intuition can be developed and improved. And that can make a positive difference in a leader’s effectiveness.
2) Quality of Vulnerability and Transparency:
This attribute was described as a woman’s ability to set the tone for the climate around her. The idea is that successful women leaders invite openness and vulnerability. This includes the ability to dig deeper, ask questions, and admit the need for help.
3) Unique Responsiveness
The assumption here is that women are caretakers and nurturers. They are more in tune with feelings, and have greater ability to empathize and show affection toward people. Applied to the workplace, the author of the article pointed out how this is a gift for bringing togetherness, collaboration, and synergy to a group.
I shared these attributes in a recent discussion with another group of professional women. Of the five proposed feminine qualities of leadership, these last two (numbers two and three) were agreed to be the most uniquely feminine.
Vulnerability can be difficult for anyone to let others witness. But while many women lean more typically toward strength in soft skills and collaboration, we know that anyone can learn and strengthen skills in emotional intelligence even if they don’t come naturally.
Described as the ability to stay focused in a crisis, women are said to have a strong ability to take in all of the information around a situation and then respond, intentionally, rather than simply react.
This may be true of many women, but not all. The women leaders I spoke to agreed. Perhaps it is also dependent, a bit, on how a person is ‘wired’ in their personality. Using the Meyers-Briggs example, again, some personality types will be more inclined to this than others.
It may also be that development of the other four attributes listed increases the likelihood that a leader will be remain focused and respond vs. react in a crisis.
Confidence was described as “knowing when and how to insert yourself in a calm, decisive, and logical way.”
According to the book The Confidence Code by Claire Shipman and Katty Kay, their research uncovered definite differences between men and women in how they develop confidence. They also found that confidence in women often looks different than it does in men. It looks a little like the vulnerability, transparency and responsiveness described in the attributes named above. The authors said:
“We don’t always have to speak first; we can listen, and incorporate what others say, and perhaps even rely on colleagues to help make our point. We can pass credit around, and we can avoid alienating potential enemies. We can speak calmly but carry a smart message. One that will be heard. Confidence, for many of us, can even be quiet.”
This prompts us to consider looking at confidence through a wider lens and the implications that may have for all leaders.
Learning and growing from our leadership differences
Men and women are different. Thank goodness. Therefore, men and women [tend] to lead differently. And we can learn from each other.
A recent Stanford Business School study showed that women who combined qualities traditionally viewed as male (aggression, assertiveness, and confidence) with qualities traditionally viewed as female (collaboration, process orientation, persuasion, and humility) performed better than everyone else.
If we apply that insight to the bigger picture, we begin to see that this is not a question of gender. It’s about developing a leadership style that instills vision, is emotionally intelligent, encourages innovation, invites collaboration, empowers action, and serves those the individual is called to lead.
Learn it. Apply it.
Now it’s your turn.
- What do you observe as the major differences in how the men and women around you lead? Are these truly gender-based differences?
- What can you learn from the different leadership styles that you observe?
- If you are a woman leader, what makes you unique in your leadership style? What impact does that have on your work team and/or your organization?
- If you are a male leader, how can you support female leaders in your organization?
- What’s an area of your leadership style that you would like to develop?