7 Characteristics of Women Leaders

Web technologies, shifting demographics, and deregulated global markets now require leaders who are comfortable being at the center rather than being at the top, exercising intuitive and collaborative skills and making their words consistent with their actions. Women have an advantage in a world that values authenticity over positional power. The ability to lead effectively derives from self-knowledge.

Women are particularly well suited to the new dance of leadership—and yet many stumble as leaders. Zoe Cruz and Sallie Krawcheck were the most powerful women on Wall Street. It was speculated that both would become CEOs of their powerhouses—Morgan Stanley and Citigroup. Instead, Ms. Cruz was ousted and Ms. Krawcheck demoted, leading to hand-wringing about how women seem be losing ground as leaders.

Having studied female leadership for two decades, this “women flounder as leaders” narrative has a familiar ring. While the progress women have made as leaders has not been rapid or smooth, the impact women are having on what we perceive to be desirable in our leaders continues to grow. The real story is about influence (not numbers).

Women are comfortable with direct communication, relationship-building, diversity, and emotional intelligence—skills best suited for leaders today. I prefer to focus on what women have to contribute, rather than how they need to change or adapt.

For decades, women were urged to conform to a masculine leadership style—to start using football metaphors in meetings, take up golf, and pull rank on subordinates in order to keep them in line. Leave your values at home and play the game was the message.

This conventional wisdom was based on three assumptions: 1) organizations wouldn’t change simply because women had entered them in massive numbers; 2) changes wrought by networked technologies wouldn’t change organizational structures or reshape people’s expectations of their leaders; and 3) women’s handicaps as leaders would outweigh whatever advantages they might confer.

I saw these assumptions as false. As organizations undergo rapid changes as demographics, technology, and economics of work shift, women face a historic opportunity to influence if they will honor and develop their distinctive strengths.

Characteristics of Women Leaders

In my research, I find that talented and confident women leaders have seven characteristics in common:
1) they place a high value on relationships and judge the success of their organizations based on the quality of relationships within them;
2) they prefer direct communication;
3) they are comfortable with diversity, having been outsiders themselves and knowing what kind of value fresh eyes could bring;
4) they are unwilling (and unable) to compartmentalize their lives and so draw upon personal experience to bring private sphere information and insights to their jobs;
5) they are skeptical of hierarchies and surprisingly disdainful of the perks and privileges that distinguish hierarchical leaders and establish their place in the pecking order;
6) they preferred leading from the center rather than the top and structure their organizations to reflect this; and
7) they ask big-picture questions about the work they do and its value.

Such skills and strengths of women leaders are now highly desirable. Networked technologies, the knowledge economy and demographics of globalization all support the skills, talents, and presumptions that women bring.

Twenty years ago, relationship building was considered a soft skill that a leader, who had to be tough, could not afford. Now, as leaders seek to connect more directly with customers and stakeholders and motivate employees, an ability to nurture strong relationships is essential.

Technology today facilitates and demands direct communication while undermining hierarchy, a plus for those who enjoy leading from the center rather than the top. And in a global economy, comfort with diversity has become essential. As work and home become harder to separate, compartmentalizing becomes a liability.

Also, the tough-guy approach to leadership is in disrepute these days, as tyrants and bullies are brought in for censure. Organizations today feel compelled to state how they value relationships and support diversity. Leaders compete to take a greener, more holistic approach—emphasizing sustainability and contribution and acknowledging the need to nurture the human spirit.

Inclusive has become a buzzword, and weblike a description of how things work. As more women are reaching positions of authority and influence, they are having a profound impact on how organizations are led and on what leadership qualities are valued.

By : Sally Helgesen – HumanResourcesIQ


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