Redefining Success for Women: The Third Metric of Leadership

Author Arianna Huffington arrives at the 2013 Vanity Fair Oscars Viewing and After Party, Sunday, Feb. 24 2013 at the Sunset
Author Arianna Huffington arrives at the 2013 Vanity Fair Oscars Viewing and After Party, Sunday, Feb. 24 2013 at the Sunset Plaza Hotel in West Hollywood, Calif. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

You only have to look at the statistics around women in leadership to be struck by the stark reality facing women trying to crawl up the corporate ladder. To say there is a scarcity of upward movement would be an understatement of epic proportions.

And you don't have to look too far to see throngs of women trying to do it all, have it all and be it all -- all while trying to fit into male power structures that weren't designed to serve them and have not been adjusted to accommodate them.

When even influential leaders like Arianna Huffington, the co-founder and editor in chief of The Huffington Post Media Group -- one of the fastest growing media companies in the world -- are burning themselves out in the name of success, something needs to shift.

For Huffington, the call for change came in the form of a broken cheekbone and a nasty gash over her eye -- the results of a fall brought on by exhaustion and lack of sleep. While her injuries are hopefully unique, the story of a female leader functioning, but nowhere close to flourishing, is being whispered by women the world over.

But Huffington and a growing number of women like her believe the traditional definitions of success -- money and power -- aren't working, particularly for women who seem to be paying a much higher price than men.

For so long, we have been telling women to change who they inherently are in order to find their seat at the boardroom table. Step up, be more assertive and in recent times, lean in. The message has invariably been about "fixing" women. Make women more like men so they can seamlessly fit into patriarchal organizational structures.

Blend in, don't make a fuss, suppress your femininity, don't be too special or have different needs and God forbid, don't let anyone actually notice that you are, you know, a woman.

But research and science tells us that women and men are different -- their brains are different, what they need is different, how they show up is different and certainly how they authentically lead is different. It's time we really understood this and embraced these differences for the benefit of our businesses and bottom lines.

The recent white paper "Unleashing the Butterfly Effect for Women, Leadership and Work" documents how and why our current approaches to move more women into the boardroom continue to fall short of the targets. It highlights new research that shows people from corners far and wide are now placing more value on inherent feminine traits like compassion and collaboration -- and less on command-and-control -- as a form of leadership, whether these traits show up in men or women. It lays out an evidence-based roadmap for a change in leadership behavior to get us out of the current global mess. And it demonstrates where change is already starting to occur.

It starts a new conversation.

A conversation where we talk less about equity and more about the unique talents all people bring to the table and how we can collectively harness these for the greater good. Where we wake up and realize the current models of leadership behavior pervasive in our organizations are not serving us as well as they could be and that we need to embrace and enhance the value in true feminine traits -- which can show up in men as well as women -- and finally serve us all.

And a conversation where we can finally stop trying to make women fit unnaturally into a culture and set of behaviors where it is so challenging for them to sustainably thrive and instead, create new structures and cultures that support everyone equally.

The truth is what the market is seeking in terms of leadership is changing. In 2013, extensive research was released which shed light on the real differences between how men and women lead, and as importantly, what people are looking for to drive positive change in the world.

John Gerzema and Pulitzer Prize winner Michael D'Antonio surveyed 60,000 people in twenty-five nations across a wide swath of cultural, political and economic diversity. Their research showed that people everywhere are frustrated by a world long dominated by codes of male thinking and behavior: codes of control, aggression and black-and-white thinking.

In a world that's increasingly social, interdependent and transparent, it was clear the "feminine" values defined by research participants -- like empathy, openness, collaboration, transparency, patience and humility -- were rising to become more popular than the macho paradigm of the past. In fact, two-thirds of the people surveyed felt the world would be a better place if men thought more like women.

Women have more natural instinct to lead with these values because their brains are hardwired for these behaviors. With a bigger communication center, bigger emotional memory center and an almost psychic ability to read cues in people found deep inside the female brain -- this makes the kind of communication, connection, emotional sensitivity and responsiveness people are now seeking in their leaders easier to deliver.

It's time women embrace their inherently unique and authentic qualities, rather than trying to dumb them down, stamp them out or repress them in order to fit the required leadership mold. It is time for women to give themselves permission to fully step into their power, for all that they are and all that they can be. And it is time for business leaders and organizations to recognize that the qualities that have long been seen to be weaknesses, are actually the strengths that can help address many of the issues that business, government and the economy are facing today.

But getting more women into leadership positions is going to take a radical openness and willingness to embrace new thinking and progressive strategies.

Huffington, for example, is advocating for a third metric of success that includes well-being, wisdom and the capacity to wonder and give, so instead of just breaking through the glass ceiling in a broken corporate system, women can change the system altogether by redefining what we value and what success means.

Perhaps, as more women start to approach work in this way -- with the permission, confidence and commitment to success on their own terms -- things will really start to change.