In the last generation, the face of leadership has undergone quite a few changes.
Most notably, it has become much more feminine—and that trend is likely to continue.
Here, Dr. Nancy D. O’Reilly and her Leading Women coauthors
explain why women make natural leaders for the 21st century.
Successful women have been in the news quite a bit lately. Fortune recently reported that women-run companies in the Fortune 1,000 perform three times better than S&P 500 companies led predominantly by men.
“Women are running kick-ass companies and wielding power on the world stage because we’re exactly what the 21st century needs,” says O’Reilly, who, along with 19 other women, cowrote the new book Leading Women: 20 Influential Women Share Their Secrets to Leadership, Business, and Life. “For millennia, women have cultivated a unique skill set that’s perfect for where we are in business and leadership right now.
“Whether the position in question involves advancing your community, running a company or small business, or guiding the country, feminine skills are what leaders need to succeed moving forward,” she confirms.
To be clear, O’Reilly is not instigating a male-female grudge match. Many male leaders have been, and continue to be, very successful using a traditionally feminine leadership style. Birute Regine, EdD, one of O’Reilly’s coauthors, points to one very well-known modern example: President Barack Obama. Regardless of how you feel about his politics, Obama has been able to achieve many of his goals not by using his power to dominate and show his muscle (a traditionally male tactic he typically avoids), but instead through collaboration (a tactic that’s traditionally associated with women).
In her book O’Reilly has brought together 20 nationally acclaimed women authors to share their real-life advice for breaking free of women’s traditional limitations in work and community. Coauthors include New York Times and Amazon best-selling authors, corporate coaches, an Emmy Award-winning television host, and more.
Here, O’Reilly and some of her coauthors take a closer look at the feminine skill set that’s propelling women into today’s and tomorrow’s leadership positions:
A talent for creating and nurturing a strong support system. Men bond with each other too, of course, but women are known for our ability to cultivate a tight-knit, long-lasting group of friends. And as we seek to take and wield our power, women need a core support system that provides them with encouragement, feedback, and (when necessary) a shoulder to cry on—arguably more than men do. While women are accomplishing great things, we still face barriers that most men don’t—in getting credit for our ideas, making our voices heard, and even earning an equal wage.
“Our girlfriends are the family we choose, and this sisterhood is often the secret weapon that enables us to get back up after we stumble, and that gives us the grit to keep going when we face opposition,” O’Reilly says. “And when we feel like giving up, our friends are the people who remind us of the passion and conviction that prompted us to chase our goals in the first place.
“Personally, I credit my friends with helping me achieve all of my proudest accomplishments,” she adds. “And overall, I see a women-helping-women movement that’s enabling many smart, amazing women to make the world a better place.”
A thick skin (yes, really!). Women are often thought of as “weak” and emotional. When we look at women like Hillary Clinton and Marissa Mayer, whose hides are tough as a boot, we see them as anomalies. But are they really? The truth is, most women possess the ability to ignore criticism and work with people we don’t like.
Skeptical? Think about the woman who takes on a patronizing county commissioner as she works to increase school funding, the mother who ignores criticism of her parenting choices, or the aspiring executive who steadily rises in management despite the snarky sniping and jealousy of underlings and peers.
Major flexibility. Whether a woman is moving forward with a new business plan, leading a team charged with fixing a faulty process, or pitching a new idea to a client, she’ll surely run into roadblocks, opposition, and last-minute changes of plan. Women are great at navigating these situations because we stay open to other options and are good at coming up with solutions that benefit everyone.
“Whether in the unpredictable trenches of motherhood or in the fast-paced corporate jungle, women have learned that as long as our core values aren’t being violated it’s usually more beneficial to go with the flow than it is to dig in our heels and hold fast,” O’Reilly explains. “This isn’t weakness; it’s adaptability and realism—and it allows us to land on our feet when a more rigid approach might have spelled disaster.”
A deep wellspring of resilience. As O’Reilly has pointed out, women who aspire to lead face obstacles that most men don’t. Often, we’ve encountered and overcome negative assumptions about our abilities and priorities, a tendency not to be taken as seriously as our male counterparts, harsher judgments on our appearance, and much more.
Most women have developed strong internal and external resources that enable us to power through tough times,” O’Reilly points out. “Actually, I know many women who not only get right back up when they’ve been knocked down, but creatively use obstacles as teachable moments and stepping stones for future success.
A style of power that’s collaborative, not controlling. If you think power necessarily means “command and control leadership,” think again. Women wield our own style of power, and, frankly, it packs quite a punch. O’Reilly’s coauthor Gloria Feldt explains that instead of seeking “power over,” women are more comfortable seeking the “power to.” Feminine power is the ability to accomplish our goals, provide for our families, and make the world a better place—and to help others do the same.
Female leaders understand that more for you doesn’t mean less for me, that power isn’t a finite resource,” O’Reilly comments. “The more ‘girl power’ we use, the more of it there is.”
A communication style that’s informative and inclusive. Claire Damken Brown, PhD (another coauthor), says that women’s talk patterns are indirect and detail-driven, meaning that we usually provide more background information than men. And research has found that women talk to exchange information and establish cohesion.
The desire to see others succeed. Women are natural collaborators. We know the significance of a helping hand, mutual support, and mentorship, and we value the satisfaction and meaning that come from aiding others. In the workplace, this ability often helps us cross from being a “boss” to being a “leader”—a distinction that creates employee buy-in and engagement.
“I know so many women who freely give their time, knowledge, understanding, empathy, and support to other people,” shares O’Reilly. “And I’m not just talking about helping employees who are already on their teams. I’m constantly pleased and surprised by how many important women are willing to volunteer their time to sponsor or mentor rookies. I’ve even seen leaders freely share ideas and best practices with the so-called competition.
“These women know that helping other women claim their power and passion is always a sound investment,” she adds. “When the hands that rock the cradle join together, they really can rule the world.”
An ego that doesn’t mind taking the backseat. The traditional image of the “strong” leader is a man who is self-sufficient and capable. He’s the prototypical rugged individualist and never asks for help. Of course, this is an outdated stereotype, and successful female leaders are proving just how smart it really is to ask for help. Women have long realized the benefits of tapping into the resources and expertise of others—Will you watch the kids? What’s your advice? Can we work together on this?—and know it’s an incredibly efficient way to get things done.
The ability to connect with a crowd. While many women (and men, too) have a fear of public speaking, women are especially talented in making a positive and memorable connection with their audiences.
Leading Women contributor Lois Phillips, PhD, says women have a natural affinity for public speaking. We tend to provide information to help listeners achieve their goals, rather than to establish dominance over the group or negotiate status. We also want to connect to our audience and have an innate ability to read and respond to their nonverbal cues.
A high emotional quotient (EQ). Historically, female leaders have tried to compensate for being the “emotional,” “soft” sex by keeping it all business, all the time. But as it turns out, women’s ability to nurture relationships is actually a huge asset in a business context. The quality of a leader’s relationships with peers and employees has a major impact on company culture and morale, and thus productivity and growth.
“Feminine skills like showing empathy, being emotionally intelligent, being able to put others at ease, caring about their concerns, and more are now ‘must-have’ abilities for leaders,” notes O’Reilly. “And make no mistake, these are not ‘soft skills’; they are actually quite difficult to learn and develop. Case in point: As my coauthor Birute Regine, EdD, points out, no one ever succeeded in mastering relational intelligence during a two-hour seminar.”
An instinct for tapping into “collective intelligence.” Successful collaboration is a lot more than just putting a group of people in a room and asking them to work together. As Birute Regine, EdD, notes, it requires participants to accurately read nonverbal cues and others’ emotions, to use empathy, to put ego aside, and to be sensitive to fairness and turn-taking. All of these are feminine skills. Without them, collaboration can easily devolve into group-think and follow-the-leader. With them, though, a group becomes capable of “evolved thinking.”
Furthermore, Regine says, research shows that groups are most likely to display a level of creativity that’s greater than the sum of its parts when at least half the chairs around the table are occupied by women.
“Women are adept at creating conditions of mutuality, equality, and trust—all of which are necessary for team members to feel comfortable enough to share ideas and take risks,” observes O’Reilly. “That’s why it’s so important for women in leadership positions to reach out to bring other women into the fold. When we join forces, the benefits have a powerful ripple effect that extends well beyond the original participants. No individual woman is as creative, skilled, or powerful as we are together.”
Of course, none of these skills are big news to women, O’Reilly adds. It’s just that the world is finally taking notice of them—and realizing they are perfectly suited for today’s leadership roles.
“What’s funny to me is that most women don’t think of the skills we just discussed as ‘feminine skills,'” she laughs. “They just think of them as ‘doing what we have to do’! Women have always been amazingly effective, productive, and powerful. It’s just that now we get to be these things on a bigger and more public stage.”
Nancy D. O’Reilly, PsyD, is an author of Leading Women: 20 Influential Women Share Their Secrets to Leadership, Business, and Life and urges women to connect to help each other create a better world. As a clinical psychologist, motivational speaker, and women empowerment expert, O’Reilly helps women create the satisfying and purposeful lives they want to benefit themselves, their families, and their communities. For more information, please visit www.drnancyoreilly.com and follow the author on Facebook and Twitter .