Women Leaders Excel

With B.C. Premier-elect Christy Clark embracing her recent victory as British Columbia’s second woman in history to hold the province’s top political job, the topic of women and leadership is being looked at in many quarters once again.

Yet despite Ms. Clark’s accomplishment, women leaders still have a hard time catching a break.

They’re either stereotyped as too “male” – hardened, cold and unfeeling, or the opposite, too caring and empathic – too “female” – to get the job done well. It seems like they can’t win.

However, it turns out that neither of these stereotypes applies to women leaders in top positions, according to a recent a study in the Journal of Applied Psychology.  Female CEO’s, vice-presidents, company owners and business leaders are often viewed as having all the necessary attributes considered desirable in today’s workplace.

The accent nowadays is on a combination of abilities, including being achievement oriented, competitive, independent and decisive, as well as being able to build strong relationships, to collaborate with others and coach and develop employees.  Successful top women leaders are perceived as embodying all these traits, according to researchers Ashleigh Shelby Rosette and Leigh Plukett Tost, of Duke University in North Carolina.

The researchers believe that the reason for the remarkable difference in how women leaders are viewed is due to the focus in business toward a more democratic leadership style that emphasizes employee participation.  At the same time, top women leaders have proven their success in increasingly competitive business environments, leading to the perception that not only are they democratic, they are also authoritative and decisive – in short, exemplary business leaders.

Breaking through the glass ceiling is still a challenge for businesswomen. Yet, once they do, they are considered to be effective and more successful than male leaders.  The researchers posit that the reason for this discrepancy is the idea that if a woman does get through, she’s had to work harder than her male counterparts to get where she is.  Superior talent is then conferred on the top women leaders.

The ability to combine business acumen and decisiveness with people developing and a collaborative approach is key to top female leaders’ success.  Taking a page from their play books will help you maneuver through your career, whether you are male or female.

There are four ways to build and take advantage of these skill sets to enhance your performance, no matter what your current level in the organization.

  1. Decisive and Collaborative

Successful women leaders are willing to make tough decisions, but they use collaboration to identify what needs to be done and guide others in how the decisions were made.  While the decision is ultimately the woman’s to make and that authority is never shirked or abdicated, strong women leaders take in all the data needed to make the decision and provide leadership regarding bringing employees into the process.  An effective leader lays the ground for organizational understanding of the reasons for business decisions and works to ensure the decision-making process is understood.  Making a decision after engaging others is a hallmark of a successful leader.  That decision may be unpopular but the goal is to make sure the rationale for it is understood.

  1. Competitive and Team Driven

Successful female leaders insist on staying competitive in the marketplace by knowing how the organization, as a high functioning team, creates the context for winning. For example, when women leaders think about how a competitive strategy will be executed company wide, they insist on buy-in from the organization.  Accounting for dissenting voices is part of this process: any time a team member raises a cautionary point, it is reviewed and accounted for.  Trusting team input ends up being key to remaining competitive.

       3. Power and Ethics

Strong women leaders have a sense of their power and authority and are willing to use it.  At the same time, they tend not to abuse their power by running rough shod over others or by abdicating responsibility for their actions in favour of blaming underlings.  The ethical use of power stems from recognizing that powerful positions come with responsibilities to set the proper tone, use authority judicially and stand by decisions. A strong ethical stance guards against the abuse of power in top women leaders. They hold themselves to accountability standards in line with their position.

       4.  Capability and Curiosity

Top women leaders combine business acumen, knowledge and expertise with a sense of insatiable curiosity.  Rather than be a know-it-all, women leaders spend time exploring what they don’t know, understanding what others may understand better and constantly incorporating new knowledge into the running of the business.

It is the combining of seemingly disparate skill sets that sets top female leaders apart.  Taking their example and practicing the combination of these key elements of leadership should spell success for those that make the effort.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership.  Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.  They can be contacted at: sunmail@newmangrigg.com


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