Part 2: Do Women Have a Leadership Advantage?

In the first installment of our discussion on women in leadership, we discussed the reality of the workplace today.  The path to a gender-balanced workplace is littered with pitfalls making it extremely difficult for women to get ahead.  Today we discuss how to overcome these obstacles and achieve massive success.

Click here to read part one.

The opportunity: women’s leadership strengths

We may be facing headwinds, but the situation isn’t hopeless. Women in business bring unique skills (which I have written about in greater depth here). Our key strengths can be summarized as:

  1. Transformational leadership. Transformational leaders guide change through inspiration and connection, building trust and confidence in those they lead and empowering them to develop their potential. Many studies suggest that women are more transformational in style than men. Emerging leadership models are inclusive and collaborative—exactly the strengths associated with women.
  2. Emotional intelligence (EI). A transformational leadership style emphasizes the importance of interpersonal qualities commonly attributed to women such as cooperation, collaboration, and interpersonal sensitivity—all hallmarks of EI. The higher you go in the organization, the more EI competencies matter, like openness to diverse personalities and perspectives.
  3. Agility. Women have demonstrated proficiency at anticipating change, instilling confidence, and initiating action, at home and at work. It’s easy to see parallels between being a mother and an agile leader. Agile leaders develop nimble teams that can respond quickly in changing environments. Women seem to find this kind of rapid consensus building comes more easily than men.
  4. Multi-tasking. Recent science backs up the claim: Women are faster and better organized than men when switching rapidly between tasks. The studies invoke a rather stale stereotype of women cooking and tending to children by the cave while men hunt down the next mastodon, but the grain of truth is significant. With the rise of unlimited connectivity thanks to our mobile devices, multi-tasking has become an important workplace skill, even at leadership levels.

These aptitudes, abilities, talents, and skills associated with the XX chromosome are unique strengths women bring to leadership. So how can we get invited to bring our best to the senior levels of leadership?

Recipe for success: Bring strengths to bear against obstacles

A number of behaviors do indeed bring women greater opportunity to be promoted to leadership roles, some of which I wrote about in “How Women Win a Seat in the C-Suite”. Three primary behaviors described in that article include developing successors, taking on the difficult and making it look easy, and finding support among female peers.

It is absolutely critical that women stay on the leadership track, which means applying for new roles with frequency, rather than being a perfectionist about getting your current position “right” before you feel ready to move up. Here, the different training that young boys and girls receive works to create different behaviors, some of which become self-limiting. From the time boys first participate in sports, they are exposed to the idea that every player’s position needs a backup. It is assumed that multiple people will train for each position, so that an athlete who is tired or injured can be replaced mid-game. Girls are starting to get that message too as they participate in sports in greater numbers, but I find that women in leadership are still less inclined to develop a successor, and that is something that could directly affect gender balance at the top.

How might your prospects for future leadership change if you simply began to prioritize building the competencies of transformational leadership, while training a successor for your current position?

Harvard’s Heidi/Howard study described in Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In makes it abundantly clear that for women to succeed, we need to follow a different game plan. It would be a mistake for women to try to become traditional leaders, because of the problem of perception: our strengths are misjudged as weaknesses. What is “assertiveness” in a male is perceived as “aggressiveness” in a female, even if the actual behavior is identical, as the Heidi/Howard study showed.

It is now widely understood that organizations with more senior ranking women have a competitive edge. Recent research also indicates that women in business who seek out peer support groups are more successful and happier than those who do not. The groups are powerful, and should increasingly be an expected part of best practices for women in leadership.

For women’s leadership advantage to become significant to organizational success, I recommend that women join peer support groups and invest in executive coaching to hone the competencies of transformational leaders. You may be in middle management as you begin this journey to leadership, but from this moment forward you will be contributing to an organization that is more ready to be the gender-balanced success you aspire to lead.