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Career Success
JUN 20, 2013

Traits of Successful Female Leaders

By Steven Neo Say Bin
Shutterstock/fizkes

I have encountered numerous great leaders and role models, but the most intriguing individuals that I have met are successful female leaders who juggle both work and family life with apparent ease. Intrigued by their abilities, I set out to understand the issues and challenges facing female leaders.

Stereotypical gender bias of female leaders

Catalyst, a non-profit organization with a mission to expand opportunities for women in business, has published a series of findings on the stereotyping issues faced by female leaders in the workplace. These include Women “Take Care,” Men “Take Charge:” Stereotyping of U.S. Business Leaders Exposed and Different Cultures, Similar Perceptions: Stereotyping of Western European Business Leaders.

According to these, the stereotype seems to be that women are effective in “caretaker” behaviors such as supporting others and rewarding subordinates, while men are effective in “take charge” behaviors such as delegating and influencing superiors. Women leaders are typically stereotyped as relatively poor problem-solvers, which can undermine their ability to motivate followers in an organization.

The perception of being an effective problem-solver is closely linked to other key leadership traits, such as team building. Without problem solving, women might be considered less inspirational, or even capable of finding the right people to implement an organization’s strategy..

Interestingly, this particular stereotype seems to be prevalent across cultural backgrounds and genders. Men from almost all cultural groups were shown to perceive male leaders as outperforming women at problem-solving, while women perceived men more competent when it came to influencing superiors.

The perceived competence at problem-solving, inspiring followers, and team building is closely related to interpersonal power, without which women have to rely on hierarchy and rewards to motivate followers. Further, since women tend to have positions that are lower in their organization’s hierarchy, even the power provided in these alternatives is limited.

This phenomenon creates a predicament for women in leadership positions, particularly those in “masculine” fields such as information technology, sales, and marketing.

Traits of Successful Female Leaders

In order to overcome these stereotypical biases, female leaders have developed their own unique management characteristics. Based on research by McKinsey, “Centered leadership: How talented women thrive,” successful female leaders exhibit core characteristics in the following five dimensions:

1. Meaning
Being able to find your strengths and put them to work for an inspiring purpose.

2. Managing energy flow
Being able to know your energy flow: where it comes from, where it goes, and what you can do to manage it.

3. Positive framing
Adopting a more constructive way to view your own world and expand your horizons.

4. Connecting
Identifying who can help you to grow so as to build stronger relationships and increase your sense of belonging.

5. Engaging
Finding your own voice by becoming self-reliant and confident in creating and accepting opportunities.

In order to determine the validity of these traits, I interviewed three successful female leaders at different career stages:
– Junior executive level
– Managerial level
– Director level

Through the interviews, I was able to identify the following traits among my interviewees:

1. Typical, Representative Behavior
– Friendly, approachable
– Belief that if there is work that needs to be done; commitment to accomplishing it to the best of their abilities with the resources available

2. Habits & Personal Policies
– Delegating, planning, networking, and consulting
– Reliance on interpersonal powers over positional powers to influence people
– Skills in planning, situational analysis, and networking

3. Feelings about Gender & Leadership
– More “take charge” behaviors, even overcompensation for the stereotypical gender bias
– Belief that society is more accepting of male leaders, especially in masculine industries such as IT

4. Transformational Leadership Style
– Passion and commitment to a personal mission
– Constant improvement through new knowledge and skills
– Understanding of themselves and their surroundings
– Recognition of the effects that gender plays on leadership styles
– Positive attitude; resolution to overcome obstacles
– High adversity quotient
– Strong personalities that are true to their nature.

Key Learning Points

My interviews with successful female leaders revealed that there are certain leadership skills, habits, and policies that have contributed to their success.

To start with, they are all good facilitators committed to helping people find common ground or align to a central vision. They sought to create solutions that are best for everyone, still with the highest possibility of success. Not surprisingly, this approach relies heavily on truly caring what people have to say. The women I spoke with all seemed to believe that this approach would convey a positive image of their leadership. As one interviewee put it, “People always remember how you make them feel.”

Second, passion and commitment are absolutely crucial to female success. It’s important for female leaders to stay true to what they love and seek opportunities and challenges in line with that. Never stand still; always be on the lookout for a way to learn something new or develop a skill.

Third, every woman needs to develop her own leadership style. There is no one perfect pattern, and trying to hide parts of who you are or change your personality to fit a particular type is, to say the least, the wrong approach. The personality of any leader is reflected in his or her leadership style, and this is what drives the best leaders to success.

Finally, female leaders should be committed to being “good engineers of people.” A key measure of success is how you are able to develop the talents around you. What the team as a whole can accomplish is always greater than one individual going it alone. As female leaders across the wold continue to rise up, surely this will be the message that helps us as a society move forward.