What Does a Female Leader Look Like?

Do we need to honor our models of female leadership or seek one model for all? I believe we can do both.
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I ran a contest asking readers to define a model of female leadership. I didn't make this request because I thought there should a different standard for men and women. On the contrary, I believe that what is being defined as a "good leader" is evolving to integrate a balance of traditional masculine and feminine traits.

I put the challenge out because I coach many women who desire to be good leaders -- whether in an executive suite, community hall or non-profit boardroom. They read more articles about what is wrong with female leaders than what is right. They know they should bring forward their talents for collaboration, consensus building, and inclusion. Yet they are still getting blasted when tears seep through their mask of control and they inadvertently fumble when attempting to play the political game.

A number of people questioned the justification for defining a female-specific model. As Mike Henry Sr. asked, "Wouldn't any leader regardless of gender be perceived to be a good leader if they had the same qualities?" These people said the model should portray a balance, as Katie Snapp said, " ... focusing on the female traits of compassion, inspiration, empathy and collaboration combined with more-masculine traits of bottom-line thinking, focus, directness and healthy competition."

Offering another perspective, Dr. Christine McDougall says there is something good about accepting different models of leadership for men and women. She says, "We are not the same by nature, nor should we aspire to be." McDougall believes that if men and women can stand side-by-side as co-leaders, honoring each other's strengths and vulnerabilities with " shame, blame or righteousness" we will model great leadership.

Honestly, after years of NOT wanting to be recognized for my gender while working in male-dominated corporations, I have come to appreciate my feminine qualities and recognize the strength they bring to my work. I like that we honor our brilliant differences!

Therefore, even though I had many responses claiming a "one-size-fits-all" model of leadership should be set out for men and women, I still think it is good to identify the qualities that women can aspire to be as leaders building on the innate strengths they bring to the table.

Naomi Caietti shared this quote from the Corporate Gender Gap Report 2010 based on a survey of 600 of the heads of Human Resources at the world's largest employers, "Leading companies are failing to capitalize on the talents of women in the workforce ... the idea that most corporations have become gender-balanced or women-friendly is still a myth." They cite the lack of female role models as one of the top three barriers to women's rise to positions of senior leadership.

The question remains: Is a role model a position, a person or a way of being?

There were some women mentioned as role models, including Carol Tome, the CFO of Home Depot; Sandra Bullock for her graceful handling of her recent life chaos; and a chorus of incredible sisters, daughters, mothers and business partners. The entries were a great testament to the women who take charge with strength and grace. Thanks to Debbie Brown, Joyce Lansky, Lee Wennerberg and Susan Steinbrecher for their heartfelt contributions.

The winning entries, according to me, profiled a real woman in a leadership role, identifying the behaviors she demonstrates and recognizing the mindset she has that makes her so remarkable. You can read the full descriptions here.

  • Frances Flynn Thorsen described her sister, Linda Licata, the Director of Nursing and Advanced Practice at Parkland Health and Hospital Systems in Dallas. She described Linda as a servant leader who engages and inspires her team and also demonstrates decisiveness, assertiveness and intelligence as she drives important initiatives not only in patient care but also in logistics, scheduling and IT operations. Above all, Linda is fueled by passion, vision and purpose, making courage a non-issue. Frances said, "Courage implies there are safer solutions to problems. Linda does not need courage because she sees no alternative to the best solutions in patient care and fidelity to service." Linda is also passionate about her family. She is the proud mother of a math professor at Stanford, a physicist at Max Planck and a young maverick finishing law school.
  • Caroline Ryan described her neighbor, Leonie, as woman with remarkable inner calmness and strength. Leonie battled health issues while supporting her family after a failed marriage, and due to her lack of degrees and work experiences, suffered through jobs that held low visibility and less promise. Yet her natural resilience, vision, warmth and unfailing optimism never fail to inspire all those around her. Her authenticity is unquestionable, her consideration for others' needs exemplary, and her decision-making is thoughtful and inclusive. Obstacles dissolve in front of her, either through her own direct intervention or through the willingness of others to work with her. Fortunately, someone saw her value. Today, Leonie holds a position where she actively influences the behavioral training and policies in a correctional institution. She is changing the lives of people at risk as well as those who work with her. Carol said, "She has given me enormous inspiration and hope that women can lead by bringing their feminine energy to bear in their personal and working environments ... moderating the masculine energetic dominance is essential so we may finally recognize and adopt a more harmonious balance of beneficial energies for the good of all."

Do we need to honor our models of female leadership or seek one model for all? I believe we can do both, but never forget what wonderful qualities men and women have to offer as we stand as different genders, side-by-side.

Marcia Reynolds is an executive coach and teaches leadership around the world. Check out the reviews for her latest book, Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction.