Volume XIII | Issue 1 | Spring 2013
Clara Barton (1821–1912) was an American teacher, nurse and humanitarian. She created a career helping others during an era when few women worked outside the home.

Leveraging strengths

Gender differences show up in how women lead — with good results

When humanitarian Clara Barton made her mark on the world in the late 1800s, it was very different environment than it is today. At a time when few women worked outside of the home, Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross, built a career helping others. 

Barton’s contributions helped usher in an era of women making their mark in business, philanthropy, volunteerism and government. 

Today, we take it as a given that women have a role in all of these sectors — in some cases, the dominant role. Women account for 65 percent of participants in the Ford Institute Leadership Program, for example; 74 percent of the Institute’s Community Ambassadors are women.

women are more holistic; they see beyond facts 

In her book Powering Up!, author Anne Doyle acknowledges the large number of women in this country whom she describes as achievers, those active in their community, business and politics (see our review here). At the same time, Doyle identifies a need that is today getting a lot of attention in research and in the press: There is a relatively low number of women in leadership positions — positions of power and influence.

It’s a hot topic, and the answer to the question of how women can become effective leaders has prompted a flood of research and books on the subject. 

Embrace transformation 

It is widely acknowledged that women’s leadership styles are different than men’s. While men in general focus on facts and logic, researchers say that women are more holistic; they see beyond facts to consider values, vision, mission and relationships. 

That’s a good thing, enabling women to identify opportunities and gaps that men may have missed.

This approach is often described as transformational leadership, as opposed to transactional leadership, which is goal- and reward-oriented. 

Transformational leaders aim to inspire followers to reach beyond what they thought possible and produce extraordinary results, says Emily Tuuk who writes for Cornell University’s HR Review. They look “to achieve true commitment and involvement from the follower by involving his or her self-worth in the work.”

Karen Pautz models transformational leadership in Mt. Shasta, Calif. She emphasizes relationships, collaboration and a shared vision in her role as the executive director of First 5 Siskiyou Children and Families Commission.

According to Bernard M. Bass, a leading management theorist, transformational leadership is imperative to success in today’s global economy, and women are more likely than men to embrace this style. 

Sharon Hadary, author of How Women Lead, agrees. She advises women to avoid emulating men in positions of power; instead, they should leverage their natural leadership style to benefit their organization. 

“For the first time in history,” Hadary says, “there is research showing that companies with more women in high-level positions report better financial performance than those with fewer women at these levels. The results are astounding.”

Find mentors

Business executive Lisa Brookshier of Estacada found success in the male-dominated world of manufacturing. She credits part of that to her practice of finding mentors to guide her through unknown territory. “When I need help, I’ll seek out someone that I see is having success in that area,” she says. “I’ve had both men and women as mentors, but what’s important to me is their knowledge. You want to go to the best.”

“Make your connections work for you,” advises Tracey Wilen-Daugenti in Women Lead: Career Perspectives from Workplace Leaders. Collaboration is a practice women are good at, she says, and helping each other succeed benefits everyone.

Toot your own horn

One thing many women are not good at is promoting themselves. But women must toot their own horn (or, as Hadary says, “advocate unabashedly for yourself”) in order to communicate self-confidence and create a business case for opportunities, recognition or salary increases.

Adjust your expectations

Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, deplores the idea of “having it all.” 

“Perhaps the greatest trap ever set for women was the coining of this phase,” she writes in her recently released book Lean In. Learning that you can’t have it all often results in disappointment at work and, for many, the refusal to even try. 

It’s a common lament among thought leaders in women leadership. “Balance is a myth that has been foisted off on women,” Hadary writes. “The concept of a perfectly balanced life, with family, work, community and personal life in equilibrium, is unrealistic and not as fulfilling as the myth suggests.”

But becoming a leader does not mean abandoning priorities at home, and Sandberg describes specific steps women can take to combine professional achievement with personal fulfillment. 

“What we have learned is that successful businesswomen focus on integrating their personal and professional lives by setting priorities based on their values,” Hadary says. 

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