Having a certain title, an army of underlings, or a fat salary doesn’t make you a leader. It’s a bit more complicated than those external markers. “Leaders take people where they ordinarily wouldn’t go by themselves,” says Lynda Ford, president of The Ford Group, a management and human resources consulting firm in Rome, N.Y.
Furthermore, leaders are able to meet people where they are, instead of where they think they should be, adds Trudy Bourgeois, founder of the Center for Workforce Excellence in Dallas, and author of The Hybrid Leader: Blending the Best of the Male & Female Leadership Styles.
True leaders have patience, flexibility, vision; they inspire, listen, teach, coach, mentor, build relationships. And that’s just for starters. What it takes to lead, particularly in this global, diverse economy, is not for the faint of heart.
That fact, however, hasn’t dampened the desire of men or women to have the CEO job, according to a recent Catalyst study, “Women and Men in U.S. Corporate Leadership: Same Workplace, Different Realities?” The study found that women and men have equal desires to attain the CEO job, and that mothers whose children are living with them are just as likely to desire the corner office as women who don’t have children.
For women, however, leadership positions at the highest levels remain elusive. Not even two percent of the biggest corporations are run by women; in the Fortune 500, just nine companies are headed by women. According to Catalyst, although women hold about half of managerial and professional specialty positions, they hold only 15.7 percent of corporate officer positions in the Fortune 500, 13.6 percent of board directorships and 7.9 percent of the Fortune 500 highest titles.
Despite all this, women believe in themselves–and one another. “If given the opportunity, a woman can run a company as well as, if not better than, a man,” says Carla Ladd, staff systems engineer for Lockheed.
Women’s Unique Abilities
And when women lead, things can be decidedly different. While every individual is unique, it’s generally agreed that women bring their own set of skills, talents and style to the table.
“Women have been socialized to make groups work. They can get a large number of people behind a cause; they are team builders,” says Lenora Billings-Harris, president of Excel Development Systems, Inc., a diversity consulting firm in Greensboro, N. C.
In addition, a woman understands “people” issues in greater depth and often with greater subtlety, says Elva Bankins, general manager of the Philadelphia office of global career services firm Lee Hecht Harrison. “They stop and ask: Why did you say that, what were you thinking?” Bankins says. “They delve deeply, whereas men sometimes take things at face value. Women are willing to take the time to deal with details, to find out what makes someone tick and what turns them off.”
That ability to listen serves women well; and any empathy and nurturing they bring to the workplace can be a powerful motivator. “It can drive people to perform at 100 percent of their capacity,” says Debra Nelson, who was recently appointed vice president of corporate diversity and community affairs for the MGM Mirage in Las Vegas, NV.
“Women lead in a relational way. They share control. My sense is that the emergence of these traits might well prove to be an advantage for women leaders,” says Corrine Post, a management professor at Pace University Lubin School of Business New York, who specializes in gender issues in management, work practices, and work-family issues.
In a recent white paper by Robin Cohen and Linda Kornfeld, managing partners of the New York and Los Angeles law offices of Dickstein Shapiro Morin & Oshinsky, a variety of data were cited as having shown the following: Women executives tend to build connections and relationships that dictate the basis of their communications, while men try to establish a hierarchy that guides their interactions with others; women are more likely to consult with others when developing strategies, including experts, employees, and fellow business owners; women executives have a greater natural tendency to deal comfortably with multitasking; women executives have fewer competitive tendencies and often seek a cooperative approach; women focus on the “big picture” when making important business decisions or developing strategies; women emphasize relationship-building as well as fact-gathering, and women are more likely to talk through business approaches, and incorporate the ideas of others, before making final decisions.
Some critics say all this collaboration, consensus-building, and talking can slow the business process, increasing the time needed to make decisions, for example. Bourgeois says women can be too skewed toward collaborating, while men can be “all about the bottom line.” What’s needed in the workplace, she says, is a blending of the two to create a more balanced work environment.
The Struggle Continues
Despite some very positive characteristics working in their favor, women in positions of leadership still face substantial challenges.
“We’ve come a long way, but it hasn’t been without a fight and there’s still a long way to go. We’ll get there out of necessity,” says Ladd, meaning employers will have little choice in promoting women as more women are in the workforce and bring with them advanced degrees.
Billings-Harris says women who work in predominantly male environments in particular may find that it takes longer for men to get comfortable with them being in a position of authority. “It takes longer to build relationships,” she says, “to realize that even though you wear a skirt, you have a vision.”
Because they are still somewhat of a novelty, women leaders can also face scrutiny, real and imagined. And if you’re an African-American woman, you have both race and gender working against you. Billings-Harris recalls traveling around the country in the early 1970s, delivering training programs to automotive manufacturers. It would take her largely white male audience a good hour to warm up to her. “I’d just talk and talk,” she says, “until they realized I knew what I was talking about.”
Victoria Phipps, a partner with the law firm of Epstein Becker Green Wickliff and Hall in Houston, Texas, says that when minority or female lawyers travel on business to smaller urban and rural areas, they may be greeted with incredulous looks, mistaken for the court reporter or plaintiff, or assumed to be the plaintiff’s wife. Even in 21 century, some still can’t see a woman – let alone a minority woman – as a qualified, experienced, capable professional.
“There’s also that perception of the angry black woman that can work against an African-American woman in the workplace,” Bourgeois says. “There’s the thought that you shouldn’t really be here. An African-American woman often has to spend time in the ‘prove herself’ mode.
Ford, however, takes issue over all the talk about gender and race differences. “The requirements are the same for all,” she says. “Every time someone doesn’t get a raise, bonus, promotion, or whatever, there’s the temptation to revert to the victim mentality to blame it on the good old boy network. Well, nobody gets through life without some defeat.
“I’m not saying that preferential treatment sometimes isn’t shown, and that there aren’t bigots, but they are not as widespread as some people want to believe.”
“It’s lonely at the top.” The old adage has never been truer, especially for women leaders who may have few or no mentors or sponsors who resemble them, share their experience, or can offer direction and support when needed.
“With not enough female role models,” Bourgeois says, “many women aren’t sure how to come up with their own style.”
“The first generation of women leaders did partition off that piece of themselves that was a wife, woman, or mother. They modeled themselves after male leaders,” says Samuel Waltz of Sam Waltz & Associates, Business &Communications Counsel, in Wilmington, Delaware.
Though there are still some women who adopt the military, tough-girl act, it’s not as prevalent as in the past. “More women, especially some African-American women who are spiritual, celebrate their differences,” says Waltz. “They know they don’t have to be like me, a graying, white male, and whoever doesn’t like it, screw them.”
Phipps recalls her early days as a litigator. “There were no role models,” she says. “There were so few women litigators. I had to find a way to relate to the jury that was female, to find my own way. I knew it wouldn’t work if I tried to imitate a man. People will praise certain behavior in a man, but despise those same traits in a woman.”
The big question, says Phipps, is figuring out how to lead effectively when you are perceived as being weaker. “Do you become a witch? An anal-retentive task master, and watch everything you assign? And, if you’re too nice, will you get everything accomplished? Will you be able to get the results you and the company expect?”
So how do individual women fight for their rightful place at the table and keep their seats once they get there?
Be realistic. “Don’t think we have fully overcome; you’ll do yourself a disservice. Realize that you have to be prepared, to have the education, the experience, so that when your credentials are presented, there’s little to question,” says Nelson.
“Early in my career, I applied for jobs that I didn’t get. I worked diligently to improve myself. Learning has to be a lifelong process,” she says. Because she didn’t have mentors early on, she would read biographies of successful business people to see how they got through and she would ponder what she thought they might do in a situation that she was having trouble with.
“Practice excellence daily,” Bourgeois adds. “Success is a strategy.”
“Flexibility is important,” Ladd says. “The path you are on may not be God’s plan. You will end up where you are supposed to be. In the meantime, make the most of where you are right now.”
On the other hand, when it’s appropriate, do take the initiative. “Don’t wait to be approached about an opportunity; seek out leadership,” says Post.
Trust yourself. “You have to believe in yourself as a leader,” Ford says. “Stop being your own worst enemy, have faith in yourself, that you have what it takes.”
Part of trusting yourself is also being comfortable in your own skin. You cannot be who you are not. Transparency in these times is a necessity, not a luxury, points out Waltz.
Each one teach one. Be a mentor, seek a mentor; seek a sponsor, be a sponsor. Women cannot be shy about asking each other for help and networking. The men have mastered this. They golf, they drink, they get business done.
“Do away with the ‘crab syndrome,’ that only one of us can make it to the top and I’ll take you out. We must be more supportive of each other,” says Bourgeois. Mentors don’t have to look like you, either. Be open to relationships with people who are different, whether in race, gender, or otherwise. It’s all about relationships.
Take risks, advises Theresa Welbourne, an expert in organizational behavior and founder and CEO of eePulse, a technology and research company based in Howell, MI. You can’t take the safe route all the time; instead, stretch yourself and your people. Better to reach and fail than to never have tried at all.
“Be a change agent; step out in a different way. Don’t let being the first or only prohibit you from moving forward. Exercise your voice,” says Nina Patterson, dean of student life at Maryville University in St. Louis. Keep in mind, Ford says, the best leadership is servant leadership. “Realize relationships mean everything. Work on them every day. Nobody owes you anything; you owe people everything.”
Finally, she adds, believe and remember that you have control. “Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, you’re probably right. The game is played out in your mind.”