How to Be and Grow the 17% Part 2: Expected Leadership Style

16 Feb

by Alissa Orlando 

My first post about how to be and grow the 17% showed that even before women are asked to balance work and family life, 20-something women are facing three main constraints to professional advancement: expected leadership style, mentorship limitations, and personal life issues.

This post will focus on expected leadership style, specifically how women are brought into leadership positions to play the rational and empathetic mediator role.  Increasingly, there is an understanding that companies that integrate women into their leadership structures perform better.  A Credit Suisse report found that the shares of companies with a market capitalization greater than $10 billion and with women on the Board of Directors outperformed comparable businesses with all-male boards by 26 percent over six years.  In the article I mentioned in my last post, Nick Kristof goes so far as to say, “Lehman Brothers might still be around today if it were Lehman Brothers & Sisters.”

Although these results show the value of integrating women leadership, my concern is that they propagate a myth that every woman brings the same type of diversity to a leadership position. In an article in Forbes about why women make better leaders, five characteristics were cited: communication, empathy, vision, perspective, and maturity.  Women are expected to both perceive and handle problems differently, with a long-term perspective and inclusive solution that takes into account the feelings of her peers and subordinates.  So women are characterized as adding value because they bring this diverse and empathetic leadership style, rather than because they are overwhelmingly competent or having unique skills that are entirely independent of their femininity.

I think that Myers-Briggs type indicators and similar tools are far more effective in predicting leadership style than gender.  For example, I am an ENTJ, also known as “the executive.”  Adjectives used to describe ENTJs include assertive, forceful, decisive, ambitious, influential, insensitive, arrogant, opinionated, and demanding of oneself and others.  Hardly the stereotypical profile for a woman leader.

When brought onto a team, I add a lot of value, but I do not typically play the rational and empathetic mediator role.  In other words, I am not adding value in the expected way; I am not bringing the diversity in leadership style that is expected with the addition of a female leader.  When women do not live up to the societal expectations of what one should contribute as a woman leader, she can be seen as underperforming, even when her deliverables far outshine her male counterparts’ outputs.

Women should not be punished or held from advancement because their leadership style does not fit the societal expectation.  Rather, diverse leadership styles and strengths demonstrated by diverse women should be celebrated, and skills should be ascribed to individuals or categories of thinkers, rather than to women as a homogeneous class.

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