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When talking about female leadership, the term “women-led” has become a buzzword, a branding play and even a credential. Being a women-led business — or having a high percentage of females in senior leadership — is a leverageable asset in today’s business climate.
I love that consumers understand something about how a women-led business might feel different to work with and care enough to seek out women-led organizations. I cofounded a company 16 years ago that benefits from this position. As a reflection of the moment, never in our history have we gotten so much feedback from clients that our female leadership is one reason they chose us.
I am passionate about supporting women-led businesses, too. The virtues of female leadership energies are the gold standard, in my mind — emotional intelligence in our conflict resolution, highly communicative collaboration, empowering rather than aggrandizing, and nurturing people over the bottom line. Much effort has been deployed in training male leaders to incorporate these styles, and that is important work.
On the other hand, women leaders are assumed to innately possess these feminine qualities and energies; we have collectively assigned these virtues to all female leaders simply on account of their gender.
The problem with this — aside from the obviously problematic reduction of gender to a binary — is that women in leadership are not a homogenous group, not by a long shot. We all need different kinds of support. Other identity markers such as sexuality and race further color how women leaders are seen and the expectations assigned to them.
The far reaches of the toxic femininity spectrum
Most of us are aware of the “toxic” female boss, the woman who becomes empowered and leads through assuming classically male, cutthroat leadership qualities. Many of us, however, struggle with this woman, especially as our boss.
We have compassion for how she came to be that way — she’s operating within the structure that surrounds her. But we also feel more harshly cut by the toxic female leader than a male leader with similar behavior, because there’s an element of betrayal at play. Think the working mom who comments on your kid being sick, again. She’s the one who cuts you off in meetings or takes credit for your work.
On the other end of the spectrum is a type of toxicity that is far less discussed but recognizable as rescuing and victimhood. This woman leads not by aping male qualities, but by amplifying typically female energies to an unhealthy degree. She prioritizes her charges so thoroughly that she does so at the expense of herself. In doing so, she struggles with setting clear boundaries, resulting in resentment and overwhelm.
Though she operates from a place of authentic love for her team, rather than stepping back and offering support when there is a problem, she jumps in to fix. This can feel helpful on the surface, but it ultimately deprives her team of the opportunity to learn — even fail. Protecting her team from burn-out, she takes everything on herself, quickly becoming a bottleneck for progress. Maybe uncomfortable with hurting people’s feelings or appearing too authoritative (the familiar double-bind for female leaders, especially women of color), she engages in triangulation rather than using direct and clear communication.
Does this form of martyrdom appear in your organization?
5 steps to a balanced leadership style
For centuries, masculine leadership qualities have been lauded and rewarded, almost exclusively. Our current swing in the other direction, in loud support of feminine leadership qualities, is a critical overcorrection, and I’m all for it. Whether you believe these differences stem from neurobiology or socialization, the best leaders occupy a healthy expression of both energies. Here are several practices women can adopt to develop a balanced leadership style.
Have courageous conversations. Studies show that women don’t receive feedback that is as honest or as qualitative as that given to their male counterparts. As female leaders, we can break the cycle by helping our female reports know what they need to do in order to improve and succeed and by ensuring we hold our team members to the same metrics of success.
Adopt an abundance mindset. Women are more cautious and self-limiting while men lean toward risk-taking. Don’t let your biggest limitation be your own diminished expectations about what you can achieve.
Own your authority. There’s a big difference between collaboration and democracy.
Model vulnerability. Admit when you’re wrong or need help. By showing our teams that vulnerability is not synonymous with weakness, we encourage the safe investigation of mistakes. It also allows men, who are rarely encouraged to show emotion or ask for help, to feel more comfortable doing so.
Invest in your team. The pandemic has clarified for so many workers who genuinely has their backs. Be loud and proud that it’s you and reap the rewards.
Women need mentors who model these behaviors — regardless of their gender expression. It’s up to today’s leaders to break away from generational patterns of leadership and create a new template for success, empowering those who follow to run higher functioning, healthier and more authentic teams.