Updated: Jul 10
The Leadership Qualities of Women
Frances suggests that perhaps women are becoming the "edge walkers" toward a type of leadership that is gender-free.
The saying, “It’s a man’s world”, hardly seems relevant in contemporary society. Even twenty years ago, the possibility of a female running for the presidency of a large developed nation would have seemed near implausible, but Hillary Clinton’s recent attempt to be nominated as the Democrat candidate in the 2008 US opportunities and dispelling gender stereotypes. Certainly, when it comes to positions of leadership, more and more often we see women acting as crucial driving forces across a variety of industries and sectors.
But does leading the way as a woman necessarily mean rejecting your natural female instincts? Should women, who want to lead, be embracing traits and acting in a manner which is perhaps more traditionally envisaged as “male” or masculine? And what unique abilities might women bring to leadership that are less known and not yet researched? Times are certainly changing and these are some of the questions that are being asked and answered as women become more visible on the leadership landscape.
Numerous studies have shown specifically how men and women act and react differently to situations in a corporate setting. There are common themes and findings across the research that is helpful to both women and men as leaders and followers. One of the most comprehensive studies of gender differences in leadership behaviour was completed in 1998 by The Management Research Group based in Germany and the USA*
The results of the research showed that while men and women were ranked equally effective overall (by bosses, peers and direct reports), the following differences were clear:
Were more task and results focused - organised work in a structured way, followed-up to ensure that objectives were met and pushed for results.
Developed closer working relationships - demonstrated more concern for others; were more candid and sincere.
Took a strategic approach to the leadership role - planning, visioning, and risk-taking, and giving thoughtful consideration to past lessons and viability of opportunities for change in the future.
Even though these results reflect a familiar pattern, we are certainly witnessing a shift in thinking when it comes to methods of working within organisations. Wecan see a trend in management literature developing where aspects such as interpersonal and communicating skills are being given more value and precedence within companies. Obviously men and women can learn from each other’s natural instincts in order to be the most well-rounded and reliably effective leaders. Therefore women can augment their task and people skills with some of the more recognised business and strategic skills and men can enhance their tendency toward business skills with better people skills – including such things as sensitivity and listening.
In addition to these well-studied areas, women harbour an array of unique qualities and instincts which can be seen in the fresh approaches that they are bringing to some of the more complex and enduring problems of corporate and societal leadership. Women tend not to recognise their own unique abilities, and in our zeal to meet and exceed performance expectations in high pressured, fast paced and results-driven business settings, these more subtle gems of wisdom can be dismissed and lost.
I have worked closely with leaders of both genders for over thirty years and have observed that the most effective women seem to tap into a different source of wisdom that leads them to unique behaviours such as:
Presence and attentiveness
Beyond communicating freely and including their employees in decisions, these women are deep listeners. The quality of attention that they give to individuals, their ideas and their needs on a daily and routine basis engenders a type of trust and loyalty that is invaluable for teams and partnerships when they face tough challenges and the need for innovation and change.
Women who can consistently shift their focus from one task or situation to another across time and situational boundaries are much more effective and resilient. This ability to compartmentalise may be connected to the experience of multi-tasking that is essential to the traditional demands of balancing personal and work life.
Willingness to ask and act upon penetrating questions
When situations seem stuck in age-old dilemmas, women who trust their own wisdom know that they must step back and ask dismantling questions in order to open up new options – questions that begin with “What if?”, “What else?” and “What would it take?” This requires stepping into what is not known in order to create something new. The results can be seen in unique organisational designs and stronger cross-functional relationships that serve real purpose. Women, who are willing to “not know”, tap into the collective intelligence and creative solutions to be found in the workforce.
In order to begin to comprehend the value of their best qualities, women must also get in touch with their inner wisdom. By this term we refer to concepts and habits that have been repeatedly tested and evaluated for their usefulness and reliability and then translated into life principles that work for you. It is personal knowledge that becomes embodied behaviour. Once you develop wisdom, it allows you to assess and discern situations with greater confidence. Wisdom, by this definition, helps women make the best judgment and choices in a wide range of both positive and challenging situations. The source of this wisdom may be a combination of concepts learned in a university, observation over time and your own thoughts that began with a quiet voice that simply spoke from somewhere in your mind. The challenge is to develop and learn how to tap into this wisdom.
A leadership challenge for women is to ensure that their styles and behaviours include the more strategic business skills that research attributes to men, the task and people skills attributed to women, as well as their own unique qualities and inner wisdom. Understanding how this broader repertoire of leader options can be used appropriately and drawn upon instinctively is a learning edge. Once these natural and instinctive qualities become part of your behaviour, this can help you to differentiate yourself as a leader within your organisation.