Do Women Have Inherent Leadership Strengths?
During my corporate career I’ve sat in some meetings thinking, “Those leadership gurus are full of bunk.” Most leadership literature says you should be a strategic thinker, consider risk carefully and understand your business and its interlocking parts deeply. But the leaders in my meetings seemed to get ahead by shooting from the hip and ignoring a lot of realities about the ways their businesses worked.
When I brought up strategic and systemic perspectives, they looked at me blankly and then went back to their script. Sometimes I felt like I was in an old time western movie with all the hip-shooting that was going on around me.
With more experience under my belt I can look back on those days with new eyes and realize that what I was missing was a mentor or a coach who could help me see the natural gifts I brought to the table were gifts, even though they weren’t always appreciated by my colleagues.
These days I am that coach I wish I’d had, and I specialize in coaching women into learning to exploit their leadership advantages to achieve the kind of success that’s meaningful both to them and their companies. When I started coaching women I did research and was amazed to see women in leadership roles correlated with amazing business results.
Digging more deeply into these correlations I was astonished to find many of the reasons the researchers believed women were great leaders had to do with the fact that they were women. Even more interesting to me, the reason they helped build stronger companies wasn’t because they were better than men, it was because they balanced an out-of-balance-testosterone-infused business leadership culture, by bringing the exact gifts I had exhibited and which had been lost among the hip-shooters.
What perspectives do women bring to business success because they are women?
Thanks to both nature and nurture, women’s brains are more connected, and aware of connections in the outside world, than men’s brains. This means it’s easier for many women to intuitively understand the results a change in the business will have on all the organization’s stakeholders, including customers, employers, analysts and competitors.
Much like understanding the business from a systemic perspective, women seem to be better at “looking around the corner” to see what the impacts of decisions today will have farther in the future.
Far from the myth that women are “risk averse”, research shows women can be very good at evaluating and taking “calculated risks.” Risk is inherently risky, but when you consider the advantages and disadvantages of various strategies more carefully, you can make better risk-related decisions. Unfettered by testosterone-induced impulses, women tend to take smarter risks than men, and it pays off for the business in many ways, including in better M&A decisions.
This is an expanded view of the common knowledge belief that “women are better at collaborating than men.” This is often true, but not always. Collaboration is only one benefit of the reality that most women tend to weigh decisions that impact people—customers, employees, vendors etc.—more comprehensively than many men. Women tend to seek (and therefore find) win-win people-business solutions as a result.
Even though women have these natural gifts, it’s not always easy for them, or the men they work with, to see them as gifts. Some of this is because the corporate culture they’re in isn’t always a good leadership culture, but it’s dominant so it’s really hard to fight. In other words, even when the Harvard Business Review touts systems thinking as an antidote to today’s wicked problems, if you’re working for people who don’t value systems thinking then you’re not going to feel valued, regardless of whether you’re a woman or a man.
Because the dominant definition of leadership has looked male for so long, many men and women don’t know how to see, much less appreciate, more femininely inspired strengths. Research confirms this, but it also shows this is changing, and every woman who learns to view her own abilities as valuable can help her company value them too.
So how would I have coached younger me to better stand by my strengths way back when? Here are the three pieces of advice I’d have given myself about how to survive and thrive in those shoot ‘em up sessions.
- Learn to communicate complex ideas with simplicity. Even for people who are good systems thinkers, and especially for those who are not, being able to communicate clearly, succinctly and without taking people on the tour of your brain when it’s thinking is a virtue. Many people aren’t able to appreciate your systems thinking because they experience the system differently or can’t follow the particular connections you made. Start with the bottom line and guide them to where you are.
- Go for impact, not approval. If you work in a culture that doesn’t value your natural talent, then working for their approval means you’ve lost before you’ve started. While some organizations don’t value results as highly as they should, when you’ve achieved them, you will be taken more seriously. Then you can begin to educate others about the process you used so they can understand better how to value what you do.
- Take a stand. Taking a stand is uncomfortable for most of us. It is risky and makes us feel vulnerable. But ask your gut how important everything is to you and when you get back a “very important!” message, tell everyone why in a way that helps them appreciate your values and the unique way you apply them. If you don’t take a stand, it’s too easy for the dominant culture to roll right over you and the leadership strengths you brought with you.
Shifting our leadership culture to include an appreciation for the documented strengths women bring to the table isn’t easy, but it’s happening as more women make it into leadership (albeit slowly). If you’re a woman, or working with women, look for the strengths listed above (can you find others?) to appreciate and value. You’ll help your organization round out its leadership culture and you’ll support all the women and men who bring these gifts to the table at the same time. A win-win for the business and the people.