Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Thoughts on Women & Leadership

I’ve gotten a lot of feedback on the premise of discussing leadership strategies for women. Most of the comments were along the lines of leadership skills and/or style should be independent of gender. I’d like to agree and in an ideal world, this would be true. However, we don’t live in an ideal world (or at least I don’t)

Okay, here come all the qualifiers. There is no one “best” leadership style. What is effective at one institution may be totally ineffective for another. You wouldn’t succeed with a participative style in the military for example. An effective leader will flex her style to mesh with both the culture as well as the needs of an organization. A start up will need different leadership skills than an established company. A different leadership style will be needed in a time of crisis than is needed when things are going well. I agree with all of that. Many leadership skills are independent of gender.

Why do I want to focus on leadership strategies and skills for women then? It’s because in my career, I’ve seen so many women fail when given leadership roles. I’ve spent the majority of my career working with scientists. We’re not known for having strong people skills. To compound the problem, people are often promoted into leadership roles not because they’re good leaders or managers but because of their technical abilities. This is a common issue across most technical fields. These also tend to be male dominated fields, so successful female role models are few and far between.

When I posted the question about leadership strategies for women on LinkedIn Susan Robertson sent me the reply below:

One of the biggest differences in men versus women is that women feel like they have to hide any characteristics that may appear to be classified as "weak" or "vulnerable." While men do this as well, for women it is more of a front of mind experience. The kind of characteristics I am talking about are: the more caring side, the relationship side, balancing the people with the logic. Many women have a natural quality of understanding relationship and yet because of fear of looking weak or "not logical" they will hide this quality and actually lose credibility because they are not using the strength of relationship orientation with logic and analytics.

So with women I am usually helping them to open up and become more of their innate strength and feminine power, whereas men, I have to teach them about the relationship and why it is important. Of course, I am generalizing and yet I see this over and over.

One interesting observation she shared is that she conducts a 5-day leadership program 23 times a year and the attendees are predominantly men.

Why focus on leadership strategies for women? Women’s challenges are different from men’s. A woman who tries to adopt a typically male style will not be accepted. While a man might be aggressive, a woman is pushy. A man might be insensitive, while a woman would be labeled insensitive. On the flip side, a typically female style might be seen as “soft”. Let’s talk about this. Where have you seen women fail, and what were the causes? What can we learn from this? Who are the successful women role models and what has made them successful. I’ll be conducting some interviews over the next few weeks and posting my findings, but I hope you’ll share your thoughts as well.

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