What does it mean to lead like a woman? Does it mean being a …a caregiver…pushy…soft… hard…smart…naïve…haggard…sexy?
I was reluctant to read Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. I perceived the book to be about how women need to lead more like men. This idea makes my skin crawl but I knew I needed to read the book to form a valid opinion. With encouragement from a few others I finally picked it up and am finding the mix of research and personal stories thought provoking. In particular the stories and data tell a compelling tale of the challenges presented to women leaders, pointing to why many women opt out of leadership.
Lean In is strengthening my stance that women should not lead like men, women should lead like women.
Employee engagement rates are beginning to tick up, ever so slightly. But the fact remains that nearly 70% of America’s workforce is not fully contributing to the success of their organization. All leaders need to keep looking beyond the command and control leadership paradigm and choose leadership styles that inspire and engage employees.
Leadership is personal. Men and women will approach it differently, how can we capitalize on the differences? Here are three calls to action to fuel leadership change and advance understanding of what it means to lead like a woman.
1. Embrace the fact that gender does not dictate who will be a better leader. Blur the line between the genders.
2. Encourage women to explore leadership roles and to find an effective personal leadership style.
3. Challenge the biases that influence perceptions about women leaders. (In addition to the studies cited in Lean In the film Miss Representation demonstrates bias relevance.)
More insight on leading like a woman will support these calls to action. What does it mean to you to lead like a woman?
For me, leading like a women means to seek first to understand then to be understood. This is Stephen Covey’s fifth habit in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I value others’ ideas and input. I am curious about how people think, what they are passionate about, and what they find discouraging. My curious nature makes it easy for me to lead by seeking to understand others but I do not find it easy to ask to be understood. When I do not feel understood I sometimes shutdown, stay quiet, and keep my ideas to myself. Or I do the opposite and try to aggressively push my ideas forward. Neither response embodies the leader I wish to be. When feeling misunderstood it is most effective to simply ask to be understood. A lesson I learned during a client engagement several years ago.
I was working on a change initiative with a group of organization stakeholders. The group was a fair representation of the organization, about 80% men and 20% women. During one session with the group I introduced a new concept and was planning to support it with background information and time for experimentation. Such progress was halted with an ambush of questions. The majority of the group had no interest in understanding what felt foreign to them. Their response was to destroy the alien idea. This persisted for forty minutes, until I made a bold move, I asked to be understood.
I stopped addressing the questions. I paused. When the group quieted I said, “I am feeling attacked and need to take a break. Please watch this short video while I step out for a moment.” Then I put on Derek Sivers fabulous three minute TED Talk, How to Start a Movement. All the while I was thinking this move is professional suicide. I have lost this group. We will not be able to continue. They no longer respect or trust me. Three minutes later I returned, still a bit shaken. I found the group willing to move forward. They embraced the concept, put it into practice, and achieved new levels of success.
I was wrong about what would happen after I asked to be understood. Respect and trust was not lost, in fact some of the people in that group are my strongest advocates. I no longer let forty minutes of positioning halt progress, once I understand I also ask to be understood.
What does it mean to lead like a woman? Several Lean In reviewers criticize that the book does not portray an accurate or complete story. Criticism without solutions is worthless. Lean In has people talking let’s flesh out more of the story. Please use the comments area to share your ideas and experiences related to effective leadership.