No need to act like a man: 6 tips for women to develop their leadership style

 ‘I can’t seem to get it right,’ sighs Joanna, as she slumps into the chair next to me. ‘When I’m assertive and forceful, I’m labelled, ‘aggressive and acting like a man’ and when I’m open and ask for everyone’s opinion, I’m called soft and pushover’….

Joanna has stepped up in her leadership role and is now managing several teams across her organisation. Her dilemma is common amongst women in leadership roles. Making your way through the labyrinth that is the leadership maze is not an easy one. As a coach I see many women who adopt styles that are not congruent with themselves in an attempt to fit in and act and be like others. The lack of senior female role models have often been cited as a factor in women adopting behaviours that men exhibit. Do women need to copy men? Do they have a natural style of their own?

Do women have a particular style of leadership?

There are a multitude of studies which highlight the differences that women and men display in their leadership styles.

• Women styles are characterised as being: democratic, participative, reward-oriented, team players, have a preference for collaboration, a greater appreciation of the importance of relationships (for example EagleyTarr-Whelan )

• Men’s styles are characterised as being:  task-oriented, autocratic, are more likely to use a directive command-and-control style and rely on formal authority

The literature reveals that there are no consistent findings on gender differences in leadership. For example, Caliper and Aurora  (2005) identified a number of characteristics that distinguish women leaders from men such as being more assertive and persuasive, have a stronger need to get things done and are more willing to take risks than male leaders.

Conversely Barsh and Cranston (2009) discovered that women are more risk averse in their style. They found that women show more emotions, and are more motivated by the purpose or meaning of their work whereas men focus more on compensation and their job titles. Whilst there is no consistency, the evidence leans towards favouring a more collaborative and inclusive style of leadership.

Can you rely on one style to be an effective leader?

The answer is no. Organisations are dynamic and in a constant state of flux with different scenarios being played out and as such leaders need to be able to flex and adapt their style to the situation, the context and the audience that they are dealing with, regardless of gender.

There is a well-known Chinese proverb that says that the wise adapt themselves to circumstances, as water moulds itself to the pitcher. The ability to change and adapt your style to fit new circumstances is a crucial skill for leaders.

A study by O’Neill and O’Reilly (2011) found that women who adapt and regulate their ‘masculine traits’ (assertion, aggression, confidence) are more likely to get promoted than their female or male counterparts.

What is the relevance of such differences to leadership performance? 

Women may have a particular style of leadership but what is its impact on performance? In a study by McKinsey (2008), 9 leadership behaviours essential to boost organizational performance were identified. These being participative decision making, role model, inspiration, expectations and rewards, people development, intellectual stimulation, efficient communication, individualistic decision making and control and corrective action.

The study found that women apply 5 of these 9 leadership behaviours more frequently than men. The 5 were:

  1.  People development
  2.  Expectation and rewards
  3.  Role model
  4.  Inspiration
  5.   Participative decision making

In contrast men adopted only 2 of the 9 behaviours more frequently than women and these were:

  1.   Control and corrective action
  2.  Individualistic decision making

More recently, Zenger and Folkman (2011) studied 7,280 leaders using 360 evaluations on 16 competencies that were most important to overall leadership effectiveness. Their findings revealed that women were rated higher in 12 of the 16 competencies that go into outstanding leadership.

2 of the traits where women outscored men were taking initiative and driving for results which traditionally are more seen as male strengths. These studies revealed that women are using a broader range of leadership behaviours which have a positive impact.

 6 tips to help you develop a range of leadership styles and behaviours 

1. Know yourself inside out by developing self awareness so that you can be authentic in the way you lead and act. Take time out to identify your strengths, where your energies lie, your values and your purpose. What are you really there for? What is driving you?

2. Find out which style you prefer and how others see you. Undertake a 360 appraisal and get feedback and use areas for development and successes as fodder for continual learning and development

3. Increase your ability to flex and adapt your style by taking on stretching assignments which will provide different experiences, exposure and  increase your resilience

4. Have a voice and be heard – develop your story telling skills and combine hearts and minds to communicate, connect, engage , build rapport, empathy and relationships with others

5. Recognise your emotions, moods, feelings and take responsibility for them. Be open to using your intuition, compassion and showing vulnerability

6. Enlist the help of a mentor, critical trusted friend or a coach to support you in overcoming some of the challenges that you will face and behaviour changes that you will need to make in finding your authentic way through the leadership maze.

What strategies have worked for you? What tips can you share?

I work with women who are progressing their careers, women who have left  employment to build profitable businesses and develop teams and people within organisations through coaching and mentoring programmes. Connect with me on Twitter @verawoodhead and on LinkedIn

Image: Google images


About verawoodhead

I'm an executive coach, leadership facilitator and learning & development consultant working with managers and leaders to develop the skills and behaviours to inspire performance and drive results; achieve promotion ; make successful career changes, be resilient and thrive at work. Within organisations, I help to facilitate better conversations, design learning interventions which deliver practical and lasting solutions aligned to business strategy and goals. Connect with me on Twitter @verawoodhead
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2 Responses to No need to act like a man: 6 tips for women to develop their leadership style

  1. Jamie says:

    Great post, Vera! Thanks for all the information on this topic. I love the Chinese proverb and find it to be so true. I wasn’t sure how to reply recently when a teacher in my former school (where I was the principal and then followed for 3 years by another female principal) said that what they needed this time around was a man! To me gender isn’t the major consideration – it’s who you are and how you lead.

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