Leadership, Gender, and Grit: An Interview with Daina Middleton

Sheryl Sandberg may have started a national conversation with Lean In, but she was hardly the first person to notice gender inequalities in the workplace. Many if not most of us with experience in the corporate world have seen the pernicious double standard play out at one point or another. From a New York Times' piece a while back: "Even in this day and age, a guy barks out an order and he is treated like someone who is in charge and a leader. But when a woman communicates in the exact same way, she's immediately labeled assertive, dominating, aggressive, and overbearing."

I was curious about how the communication side of gender issues and the solution to this problem. To this end, I recently sat down with Daina Middleton, author of Grace Meets Grit: How to Bring Out the Remarkable, Courageous Leader Within and head of leadership development at Larcen Consulting Group. Here are excerpts from our conversation:

PS: What was your motivation for writing the book?

DM: Throughout my career I had a number of experiences where I felt as though there was a missing conversation between men and women in the workplace, but I really couldn't put my finger on what "it" was. It was clear that women and men have different leadership styles that could cause misunderstandings. Sometimes these differences were so subtle that one might even call them miscues instead of misunderstandings. When I became CEO I began actively hosting conversations with other women about these miscues and the idea really resonated so I knew I was on to something. The tipping point was finding out that a talented young woman leader had lost her job because her boss, who was a man, thought she couldn't make decisions effectively because her approach to decision-making was different than his own. If the consequences could be that punitive, I was convinced that there was a deeper story that needed to be told.

PS: Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg famously said, "Fitting in is not helping us"? What did she mean and is she right?

DM: In the language of Grace Meets Grit, Sheryl is telling women to leverage the relationship skills of Grace rather than try to adopt the more status-conscious, immediate action male leadership style of Grit. She is absolutely correct. Not only is leaning away from their innate style not as effective leadership approach in general, research has proven that women who use their natural transformational style are more likely to move up the leadership ladder. Furthermore, research has conclusively proven that companies with diverse teams perform better, so "us" in Sheryl's words is large.

PS: What is "the language of grit"? Why is it so important for women to adopt?

DM: The language of Grit is a leadership style that has a heightened awareness of status and is focused on immediate action. Obviously, there are situations where leaders who possess these skills are of benefit to any organization. Women must learn how to speak the language of Grit because men are still very much in charge and in order to obtain a position at the top they will need to understand the language spoken there.

PS: Can you give me a personal example of women minimizing their leadership behaviors in the workplace?

DM: Women do not consciously minimize their behaviors, but they may not recognize just how valuable their innate skills are. Having highly developed relationship skills and an inclusive leadership approach are extremely valuable skills. However, these strengths are often referred to as "softer" leadership skills and therefore may be discounted by both sexes in the workplace. Through coaching, I find women often want to focus on the "harder" leadership skills because they feel they are more valued. The best leaders, male or female, have a nice blend of both grace and grit. This is the benefit of teaching Transformational Leadership. Transformational leaders understand how to motivate people to follow them by touching their hearts and minds and focusing on the relationship. While women more often exhibit the characteristics of transformational leadership naturally, the leadership style is actually androgynous, meaning it incorporates both masculine and feminine behaviors.