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Career Success
JUN 20, 2013

Traits of Successful Female Leaders

By Steven Neo Say Bin

In my adventures, I have encountered numerous great leaders and role models. However, the most intriguing individuals that I have met are great female leaders who seem to be able to 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 and business, has published a series of articles on the stereotyping issues faced by female leaders in the workplace as follows:

a. Women “Take Care,” Men “Take Charge:” Stereotyping of U.S. Business Leaders Exposed
b. Different Cultures, Similar Perceptions: Stereotyping of Western European Business Leaders
c. The Double-Bind Dilemma for Women in Leadership: Damned if You Do, Doomed if You Don’t

In these articles, it is revealed that the stereotypical image for women is that they are effective in “caretaker” behaviours such as supporting others and rewarding subordinates, while men are effective in “take charge” behaviours 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 behaviours, such as team-building and inspiring followers. As women are not perceived by men to be competent problem-solvers, women might be considered less competent at inspiring followers and building teams that are essential to being an effective strategic implementer in an organization.

Interestingly, this stereotypical image of women and their problem-solving abilities are prevalent across cultural backgrounds and genders. Men from almost all cultural groups perceived male leaders as outperforming women at problem-solving. On the other hand, women from almost all cultural groups perceived male leaders as outperforming women at influencing superiors.

The perceived competence at problem-solving, inspiring followers, and team-building are closely related to interpersonal power which is an important type of power that leaders use to influence followers in an organization. Without interpersonal power, women have to rely on sources of power that come from their hierarchical positions in an organization and their ability to control rewards to motivate followers. However, since most women tend to have positions that are lower in their organization’s hierarchy, they may have even less positional power than men to use to motivate their followers.

This phenomenon creates a predicament for women in leadership positions. With doubts over their problem-solving abilities, these gender stereotypical images undermine a women’s power to successfully lead in an organization. Individuals who report to women will most probably have the least confidence in their female leader’s problem-solving competence and their organizational plans. This difficulty in inspiring confidence in their subordinates is more pronounced in masculine fields such as information technology, and 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 on “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 expanding 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 who represent a different career stage in a typical organization structure:
– Junior executive level.
– Managerial level.
– Director level.

The purpose of this interviewee mix is to obtain diverse leadership opinions and to understand their challenges at different career stages.

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

1. Typical, Representative Behaviour.
– Friendly & Approachable.
– Belief that if there is work that needs to be done, they will accomplish it to the best of their abilities and the resources available.

2. Habits & Personal Policies.
– Subscribes and practices the leadership styles of delegating, planning, networking, and consulting.
– Rely more on interpersonal powers rather than positional powers to influence people into action.
– Utilize skills in planning, analyzing situations, and networking to find ways of influencing people into action.

3. Feelings about Gender & Leadership.
– Female leaders can exhibit more “take-charge” behaviour and over compensate for the stereotypical gender bias.
– Current society may be more accepting of male leaders than female leaders, especially in masculine industries such as IT.

4. Transformational Leadership Style.
4.1 Meaning.
– Passionate and committed to their personal missions in life.
– Constantly improving themselves by acquiring new knowledge and developing their own skill sets.

4.2 Managing energy flow.
– Understand themselves and their surroundings.
– Recognize the effects that gender plays on leadership styles.
– Utilize the current situation to the best of their abilities and attempts to create leadership styles that are most suited to themselves and their workplace.

4.3 Positive framing.
– Exhibit a positive attitude in life.
– Believe in being able to resolve any issue regardless of the obstacles.
– Exhibit high adversity quotient.

4.4 Connecting.
– Practice networking in their leadership styles and readily establishes relationships with people in the workplace.
– Effectively utilize their networks to mobilize people into action.

4.5 Engaging.
– Exhibit strong personalities that are true to their nature.
– Recognize and embrace the gender differences, and feel the need to constantly seek new opportunities and challenges to become better leaders.

Key Learning Points

Through my interviews with successful female leaders, I was also able to identify the following important leadership skills, habits, and policies:

1. Being a good facilitator.
– Helping people to find a common ground or vision, and to create a solution that is the best for all parties involved and have the highest possibility for future success.
– Truly caring and listening to people.
– Making people feel that they are important and their views are heard.
– Have a genuine interest in the people around you.
– Belief that “people will always remember how you make them feel.”

2. Being passionate and committed in what I do.
– Staying true to what I love to do and to constantly seek new opportunities and challenges.
– Never staying still by constantly acquiring new knowledge and developing new skills.

3. Developing my own unique leadership style.
– Being truthful to myself, to embrace my true nature, and to reflect my personality in my own unique leadership style.

4. Being a “good engineer of people”.
– A key measure of success is how you are able to develop the talents around you.
– Understanding that the collective group/team is always more than the individual self.

What do you think of stereotypical gender bias in the workplace, and traits exhibited by successful female leaders to overcome these challenges? Do share with us your thoughts and experiences!