Women Leaders: What Does It Take?

success conceptSuccessful leaders come in all different shapes, sizes, colors, races, and unique backgrounds. They are found in thriving Fortune 500 companies, flourishing entrepreneurial businesses, and demanding public service positions. Women leadership continues to push its way into all aspects of society that is traditionally reserved for its male counterparts.

Many interesting points regarding male verses female leaders in today’s society are constantly being examined and questioned. There are numerous research studies on the leadership topic that claim females are actually hardwired to be better leaders by today’s societal standards and demands.

In Alexia Parks book, Hardwired: The 10 Major Traits of Women Hardwired by Evolution That Can Save the World, she analyzes the traits of successful leaders and explains how through evolution women have obtained the strongest inherent dominance to possess these characteristics at all levels of society. She reports that in today’s complex, often volatile world, women innately have the managerial and leadership skills that include a combination of the environment, entrepreneurship, innovative technology, and communications skills needed to be a successful leader. Parks states,

It isn’t that men are better than women, or women are better than men, it’s simply that their brains are hardwired differently, to manage different tasks… Just some of the traits which became hardwired in the brains of women, included the raising of children, the incredible social bonding skills between women in the community, their ability to both show emotions and understand the emotions of others in order to enhance communication, and a tremendous empathy for all of life. (2013)

“Hard” vs. “Soft” Skills:

Many specialists claim the definition of leadership is changing everywhere. This news is especially good for women.  As the world economy continues to become a global market, as technology continues to change how we work, leadership is evolving into a relational rather than a hierarchical business transaction of activity. The world is transitioning from command and control to facilitative and collaborative leadership that works across teams, time zones, cultures and disciplines.  What is thought of as “soft skills” are becoming more critical to leadership than “hard skills.”

So what constitutes these “hard” and “soft” skills? How are they obtained? Why are they so important?

“Hard skills” are often thought of as the professional skills necessary to complete the concrete elements of a job. A computer software engineer needs to know certain languages to build applications; an accountant needs to know how to balance the books; and a waiter/waitress needs to know how to take an order, place it correctly, and deliver the meal to the appropriate table.

“Soft skills” can be seen as the behavioral ways in which people go about their work tasks.  How does the computer software engineer collaborate with fellow engineers to determine hidden technical challenges?  How does the accountant interact with coworkers to gather the meaning behind the numbers?  How does the waiter/waitress engage with guests to make their visit a memorable occasion, and not just a meal?  In a 2012 Forbes article by Kathryn Sollmann, she stated in regards to soft skills, “Generally speaking, career women are often more skilled with these kinds of skills and abilities in comparison to men.”

Hard skills can get the job done. Soft skills make the difference between a job that gets done and a job that gets done exceedingly well. Leadership requires a sophisticated approach to both sets of skills with its own set of occupational skills, such as the ability to synthesize data; the clarity to make timely and informed decisions; the capability to define priorities and goals; and the aptitude to see situations from a wide, organizational perspective.

On the behavioral side, leadership requires an exceedingly high degree of skill in working with and for others, holding others accountable to their commitments, and marshaling others to work together while following the leader into the future. (Evje, 2012) Unfortunately, many leaders fail to embrace leadership responsibilities and instead busy themselves with non-leadership tasks and focus on the work their teams should be doing…AKA “micromanaging.” The more an individual’s role involves leadership, the more their job must focus on blending the occupational and the behavioral, the technical and the interpersonal, the hard and the soft.  If you cannot achieve this internal balance, your organization will suffer a similar lack of symmetry.

This balance can be exceeding difficult, because many people define themselves by their ability to be experts in their occupational skills while viewing behavioral skills as secondary or incidental. In this way, especially for leaders, traditional soft skills are more difficult to get right. Many leaders end up over-compensating. We’ve all known the leader so focused on goals that she is unable to relate to his/her people, or the leader who can’t focus enough on goals because they want to avoid the tension required to unite around a shared purpose. Unfortunately, leaders don’t have the luxury of behaving only for themselves.  They must behave for others. Many leaders fail, or fail to develop, because they are stuck in an old mindset and continue to act for themselves. (Evje, 2012)

For too long, we’ve thought of hard skills and soft skills as mutually exclusive. Hard skills are supposed to provide the value, and soft skills supposed to be subordinate, inferior, and all about feelings. Some frameworks of leadership reinforce this myth by encouraging positioning leaders as above the group and magically removed from doubt and anxiety. In reality, there is nothing “soft” about the skills needed to relate to people well enough to lead them.  True leadership involves both hard skills and harder skills.

We all have personalities that can predispose us for certain roles, but as leadership becomes less about position and more about influence, creativity and relationships women can step into leadership roles and develop their personal leadership styles in ways they may find surprising. (Sollmann, 2012)  The key is to control individual assets in ways that advance leadership.

Introverts, for example, can be tremendous leaders because of their ability to empathize, listen, reflect and think strategically. Similarly, creative types who may not support traditional policies and practices can be crucial in a world where we’re solving problems we’ve never seen before.  It’s often the creative types who ask the questions and test assumptions in ways that traditional business leaders might not.  Today we need innovators and leaders who can see and approach problems from a variety of perspectives.

Charisma will always have value, but quieter and more reserved leaders bring much–sometimes even more–to the table. Leaders who listen well, collaborate effectively, and seek diverse opinions and contributions tend to make better decisions overall.  Often, quiet leaders understand and embrace the value of introspection, reflection and deep learning.  These leaders are deeply thoughtful and tend to see the big picture and patterns within systems that others do not recognize. The key for quieter women is to learn how to speak up when it’s important, to learn how to frame personal views persuasively, to cultivate a personal narrative that “brands” leadership in an authentic way, and to develop the confidence to act.

Friends and partnersIn Lucy Marcus’s article “Developing Women Leaders: Five Essentials,” she explains five factors that stand out in the leadership world that help to support developing women leaders and contribute to their effectiveness. There are certain basic skills that everyone should be given access to beyond the standard education. She feels that young women must have access to building these skills that help them move to successful leadership roles early in their careers. (Marcus, 2013)

1.     Basic Skills – public speaking, writing, negotiation, and effective networking

2.    International Exposure – travel, exposure to a variety of cultures and ways of thinking

3.    Mentoring – through all career levels (student years, first-third jobs, mid-career, and career success)

4.    Role Models – teach kindness, fortitude, courage, bravery, integrity, and aspiration

5.    Start Early – encourage & develop driven compassionate understanding early in life

Author Tanvi Gautam describes three similar critical skills for success in a recent Global People Tree article. First, Gautam explains the importance of cultivating a high degree of emotional quotient and cultural intelligence. She says these skills enable women to be aware and sensitive to expectations without having to conform to them. They also allow women to manage the expectations more effectively without accepting them. Second, Gautam states the importance of being authentic to one’s own style and identity. Regardless of gender, no leader can really succeed if they are not authentic to themselves. A leader will neither inspire confidence nor feel comfortable in leading the team if their authentic self and projected self, do not coincide. Authenticity demands that you define and follow the path that is true to you. Finally, she states how crucial it is to cultivate an attitude and mindset of resilience which helps success in the long term. Women often try and meet multiple expectations simultaneously and set extremely high standards of performance for themselves. While in and of itself this may be commendable, it is not realistic or sustainable.

In 2005, a year-long study conducted by Caliper, a Princeton, New Jersey-based management consulting firm, and Aurora, a London-based organization that advances women, identified a number of characteristics that distinguish women leaders from men when it comes to qualities of leadership:

Women leaders are more assertive and persuasive, have a stronger need to get things done and are more willing to take risks than male leaders….Women leaders were also found to be more empathetic and flexible, as well as stronger in interpersonal skills than their male counterparts….enabling them to read situations accurately and take information in from all sides….These women leaders are able to bring others around to their point of view….because they genuinely understand and care about where others are coming from….so that the people they are leading feel more understood, supported and valued.

The Caliper study findings were summarized into four specific statements about women’s leadership qualities:

  1. Women leaders are more persuasive than their male counterparts.
  2. When feeling the sting of rejection, women leaders learn from adversity and carry on with an “I’ll show you” attitude.
  3. Women leaders demonstrate an inclusive, team-building leadership style of problem solving and decision making.
  4. Women leaders are more likely to ignore rules and take risks.

While all of the studies and findings may be helpful as a guide for women in or seeking leadership positions, research cannot measure individual personalities and skill strengths or weaknesses with complete accuracy.  However, women can fine-tune their traits to help build the characteristics needed to develop strong leadership qualities for future success. It appears that many of the desired strengths needed already inherently exist in females. Ultimately, leadership is hard because relating to people is challenging. It is difficult to identify how our default behaviors and habits affect others. Learning to make different or new choices requires the structure and support of a good coaching process and a dedicated individual. It’s that simple.



Evje, Brian. “The Skills Most Leaders Don’t Have.” Inc. December 11, 2012. http://www.inc.com/brian-evje/the-skills-most-leaders-dont-have.html.

Gautam, Tanvi. “Women & Leadership: 3 Critical Skills for Success.” The Global People Tree. September 9, 2013. http://www.globalpeopletree.com/women-leadership-3-critical-skills-success/.

Lowen, Linda. “Qualities of Women Leaders: The Unique Leadership Characteristics of Women.” About.com: Women’s Issues. Retrieved December 19, 2013. http://womensissues.about.com/od/intheworkplace/a/WomenLeaders.htm.

Marcus, Lucy, P. “Developing Women Leaders: Five Essentials.” LinkedIn. January 1, 2013. http://www.linkedin.com/today/post/article/20130101170009-60894986-developing-women-leaders-five-essentials.

Parks, Alexia. Hardwired: The 10 Major Traits of Women Hardwired by Evolution That Can Save the World. The Education Exchange, 2013. Print.

 Sollmann, Kathryn. “How The Definition Of Leadership Is Changing For Women.” ForbesWoman. September 20, 2012. http://www.forbes.com/sites/85broads/2012/09/20/how-the-definition-of-leadership-is-changing-for-women.