As you advance in your career, you may find yourself tempted to mimic examples of “traditional” leadership. In other words, consciously or not, you may strive to be more independent, commanding, dominating, unbending, and yes, masculine.
Generally speaking, women think, relate, motivate, and assume responsibility differently from men. But if you’ve ever considered your natural leadership style a liability, think again. As the popular Always campaign demonstrates, doing anything “like a girl” should be a point of pride. (It’s time to free yourself from any lingering notions of joining the “old boys’ club.”)
In a connected global marketplace that’s driven by engaging communication, collaboration, and collective buy-in, many “feminine strengths” (which, to be fair, many men also possess and use quite effectively) are suddenly in high demand.
That said, here are six suggestions to help you tap into the power of feminine leadership.
First, gain a better understanding of your feminine “power tools.” No doubt about it: Traditional models of powerful leadership (think command and control) are on their way out. Meanwhile, a more flexible, inclusive incarnation of power — one that comes naturally to women — is becoming more entrenched.
Gloria Feldt, one of the coauthors of my book Leading Women, says instead of pursuing “power over,” women prefer to think in terms of “power to.” Yes, your team may accomplish enough with a dominating leader—but they’ll accomplish more with one who helps them tap into the power to accomplish, grow, and use their individual and collective strengths.
Speak up more often. Many female leaders consciously marshal their words so as not to be perceived as “too chatty” when there’s an important job to do. But actually, research suggests (and you may have noticed yourself) that men speak more at meetings. My coauthor Claire Damken Brown, PhD, points out that when women talk, we provide details and seek cohesion, so as long as you keep your responses focused, don’t feel that you have to be “strong and silent” to be an effective leader.
Don’t keep it all business, all the time. Women’s emotional intelligence makes us natural connectors. Use that skill to your advantage. When you allow yourself to “get personal” and nurture your relationships with team members, you will put them at ease, positively impact their motivation and engagement, and strengthen their loyalty. I love my coauthor Birute Regine, EdD’s, perspective on feminine emotional intelligence. She says it’s not a “soft skill” at all and is actually quite hard to acquire if you lack it. (It’s not the kind of thing you can master in an afternoon seminar!)
Take your place at the podium. Even if you dread speaking in public, I urge you to actively cultivate this skill. My coauthor Lois Phillips, PhD, points out that in today’s business world the podium is truly the “head of the table.” It’s a place to build credibility and expand your audience. Take advantage of women’s natural tendency to share information that empowers others and to connect with your audience by noticing and responding to their nonverbal cues.
Collaborate your way to the next level. Collaboration is definitely a buzzword these days — but as many leaders have learned the hard way, there’s a lot more to it than simply asking a group of people to sit at the same table and work together. Birute Regine, EdD, says that women are great at up-leveling group work to something greater than the sum of its parts (a real phenomenon called “collective intelligence”). This is because we emphasize turn-taking, equality, empathy, and respect for others’ opinions — conditions that must be present in order for group members to feel comfortable expressing outside-the-box opinions and taking risks.
Bring other women on board. If you’ve attempted to reach success as a rugged individualist, you know the journey can grueling, lonely, and maybe even lacking in satisfaction. Good news: It’s okay (and encouraged!) to tap into women’s collective power. For millennia, women have relied on their “sisterhood” for advice, support, and help. And today, I see a genuine women-helping-women movement taking shape. In business, in philanthropy, in our communities, and more, women are consciously joining forces to cocreate, to give one another a leg up, and to make life richer and more fulfilling.
So be vigilant for opportunities to join forces with other women. Offer others your time, insight, empathy, and aid — and accept those things in return. I truly believe when enough “hands that rock the cradle” join together, we can help rule the world.
Male or female, building a successful career isn’t easy. So, women, don’t force yourself to be what you’re not. I, for one, am excited that the changing face of leadership is displaying more and more qualities that are traditionally feminine — and optimistic about what this means for women’s future in business.
Nancy D. O’Reilly, PsyD, is an author of Leading Women: 20 Influential Women Share Their Secrets to Leadership, Business, and Life and urges women to connect to help each other create a better world. As a clinical psychologist, motivational speaker and women empowerment expert, O’Reilly helps women create the satisfying and purposeful lives they want to benefit themselves, their families and their communities. To accomplish this, she devotes her energies to fulfilling the mission of the Women Connect4Good, Inc. foundation, which benefits from her writing and speaking services. O’Reilly is the founder of Women Connect4Good, Inc., and for seven years she has interviewed inspiring women for online podcasts available on her website.