5 Ways Feminine Leadership Qualities Win the Day

RAFT Team, March 1, 2021

Men and women generally approach things differently. They lead differently, too. In a Wharton University Executive Education Program called, Women in Leadership: Legacies, Opportunities, and Challenges,” program director Anne Cummings surveyed her audience by asking for a list of words describing both masculine and feminine leadership:

Cummings began her session on gender perceptions by asking the women executives attending the program to brainstorm a list of words describing female leaders. Among the words that surfaced: multi-tasking, emotional, empathetic, strong, intuitive, compassionate, relationship building, verbal, consensus building, collaborative and gossipy.

Then Cummings asked for a list of words associated with being a male leader. Strong, arrogant, intelligent, ego-driven, bravado, powerful, dominant, assertive, single tasking, focused, competitive, stubborn, physical, self-righteous and direct made the list. 

Our Biases Feed Our Leadership Expectations

While these leadership qualities are becoming less and less distinct as decidedly male or female in recent years, cultural norms still project distinctions between male and females in power. Our implicit and explicit biases feed into leadership expectations. In her article on how to achieve gender equality in the workplace, Leyla Acaroglu explains,

The phenomena “think leader / think man” is built on a stereotypical construct of what an authoritative figure in a position of leadership should be.Strength, charisma, articulation, power, assertiveness, and dominance are all traits considered to be masculine—and all traits that are quintessential of the “leader” character. This chalk outline of a leader being a man is fed by the media, politics, history, and, of course, by the workplace, where most leaders are still men.

One thing we can learn from these stereotypes is that there’s no right way to be a woman in leadership. She’s criticized if she's strict. When she's soft she’s weak. If she’s passionate she’s emotional and if she’s assertive she’s controlling. Our culture is getting better at embracing feminine leadership traits, but we still have a long way to go. Below are 5 feminine leadership qualities that can significantly shift your organization, if you have the courage to embrace them.

Our Biases Shape Our Leadership Expectations

Lead With Empathy

Empathy is the ability to identify with another’s feelings. And not just that you identify another’s feelings, but you understand how those feelings impact perceptions. When leaders possess this feminine leadership quality, it means they’ve taken the time to get to know their people. This insight allows them to understand each individual’s strengths and weaknesses. Empathetic leaders take care of the needs of their people so their people can better respond to the needs of the organization. They seek to build up those around them to make a more integral part of the team. 

Leaders with empathy are curious and willing to listen to new ideas. They ask questions to better understand people and problems. And they’re patient, willing to hear the whole story before they take action.

“Empathy is about being concerned about the human being, not just about the output.”

Simon Sinek

Empathetic leaders can set deadlines and goals realistically, and then motivate their team to reach the finish line. And those who work under empathetic leaders work more happily and diligently because they feel seen, heard, and understood. Empathy gives leaders the ability to see when others are overworked and headed towards burnout, and provide tools and resources to help build resilience.

Lead With Vulnerability

The feminine leadership quality of vulnerability allows those in charge to be seen by others as human, as having strengths and weaknesses like everyone else. Vulnerability gives permission to respond to questions with, “I don’t know.” It allows leaders to share concerns and frustrations with the team so all can work together towards equitable solutions. And vulnerability allows leaders to share hopes and dreams with their team. This transparency can build teamwork, allow each team member to make a valuable contribution, and let everyone share in the win when they reach the finish line.

Lead with Vulnerability

Lead With Generosity

Leading with generosity means more than providing extra vacation days. It’s being generous with your time and attention. Generosity as a leader allows you to give the people you the lead the authority to make decisions but also give them room to make mistakes as they learn. Generous leaders give people credit for their ideas and their contribution. This attitude builds trust in your people and makes them willing to contribute, knowing they’ll be respected whether their contribution grows or fails. Generosity makes people feel safe. When people experience generosity, it often makes them pass that generosity on to others. Generosity lowers stress, builds the immune system, and increases your longevity. What’s not to love?!

Lead With Compassion

If someone shows kindness, caring, and a willingness to help others, they're showing compassion. Compassionate leaders understand that every single person in the organization is vital to the health and vitality of the organization. Leaders with this quality build engagement at every level, which is vital for today’s organizational culture. (Gallup research indicates that lack of engagement costs businesses between $450 billion and $550 billion each year in the United States. Moreover, organizations with engaged employees perform 200 percent better than those without.)

Lead to Build Connection

Leaders who connect with their people create a more engaging environment. When people are seen, heard, and accepted, they open up more, contribute more, and have greater loyalty. Part of that seeing, hearing and accepting stems from listening. When you as a leader understand the feelings and perspective of your people and then respond in a heartfelt manner that reveals your own humanity, the relationship changes. In that moment, the interaction shifts from boss to employee to human to human. 

Connection stems from being honest instead of sugar coating the truth. That connection grows when leaders become teachable, and continues to grow when they listen to learn instead of defend. Instead of hiding in the corner office, leaders who are accessible build greater connection. When your people know they can talk with you on any given week, they feel connected, even if they don’t ever actually talk with you. It's your availability that matters.

Lead to Build Connection

You help perpetuate more balanced leadership when you support those who implement both masculine and feminine leadership qualities.

You also reinforce these qualities when you share your wins in productivity, work culture, and lowered turnover that have come in part from this more balanced perspective. Each of these qualities requires a servant's heart, andwe know that leaders who serve succeed.

While these feminine leadership skills can be powerful in the workplace (and at home!), remember that each requires energy output. As a leader, monitor your energy levels lest you begin to experience compassion fatigue or burnout. And remember, as with all things, effective leadership requires a balance of skills, whether you lean towards masculine or feminine leadership qualities