June 19, 2024

Styles Of Leadership

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When Women Get A Seat At The Table, Why Do They Lead Like Men?

5 min read

Executive life empowerment coach, Pirie Jones Grossman Coaching.

Picture this: A company hires a woman who demonstrates collaborative skills and open-mindedness during the interview stage. But as the months pass, the new hire starts to veer away from those leadership traits, becoming less collaborative and open-minded, until she’s exhibiting a more masculine leadership style than the feminine one that landed her the position.

This scenario often plays out in the corporate world when women get a seat at the table and believe they need to lead like men to succeed, changing their leadership style—to their detriment. Much of the conversation on women in the workplace has focused on increasing representation, which is vital. Yet it’s essential that as women secure leadership positions, they feel free to maintain their natural leadership styles so they can be effective in their roles and accomplish results.

Different Leadership Styles And The Traditional Leadership Paradigm

Of course, each person is unique, and leadership styles vary, gender aside. However, research has shown that men and women have different leadership styles.

A 1990 study, for example, found that “women’s leadership styles were more democratic than men’s even in organizational settings” and that this “sex difference may reflect underlying differences in female and male personality or skills” or “subtle differences in the status of women and men who occupy the same organizational role.” Additionally, the American Psychological Association points to various studies on these different leadership styles, including one that found that the “mere presence of a female leader relative to a male leader led perceivers to anticipate fairer treatment in that organization” and another where respondents who ranked women on leadership traits perceived them as more compassionate, outgoing, creative, honest and intelligent than men.

From my observations as an executive coach, female leadership is more nurturing and empathetic than male leadership—it promotes inclusivity and diverse perspectives and encourages a sense of ownership. Anne Cummings, a former professor at the Wharton School, succinctly explained the difference between the two leadership types: Masculine leadership is typically more assertive, and feminine leadership usually places greater emphasis on relationships.

Then there’s the traditional paradigm of leadership, which traces its roots to a time when men dominated the corporate world. This old-school, hierarchical, authoritative leadership style is becoming outdated, but some corporate stranglers still hold onto it because it’s what they are familiar with. Alternatively, emergent leaders might feel they have to implement those transactional or autocratic leadership approaches to advance professionally.

Why It’s Detrimental For Women To Lead Like Men

Individuals will always have their unique leadership styles based on a multitude of factors, including personality, culture and experiences. Yet often, when women attempt to lead like men instead of women, it comes across as inauthentic. It can also be highly uncomfortable. Ultimately, taking on a masculine leadership style can derail women’s careers. Women will want to lead as they are, not have to mold themselves into an accepted idea of a leader. In many cases, they are at the table because of their natural leadership style and would do well not to suppress it. When women lead like men, they extinguish their instincts, intuition and resilience—characteristics of highly effective leadership.

What’s more, workplaces need feminine and masculine leadership styles. Some situations call for a top-down leadership style, and others call for a collaborative leadership style. I have found that the most influential leaders draw from various styles depending on their teams’ circumstances and needs.

When women lead like women, their examples allow others to witness and emulate those distinct leadership skills. As Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Cindy Gallop wrote in the Harvard Business Review, the “best gender equality intervention is to focus on equality of talent and potential,” which “only happens when we have gender-equal leadership to enable men to learn different leadership approaches from women as much as women have always been told to learn leadership approaches from men.”

The Solution: Human-Centered Leadership

Instead of adopting a masculine leadership style, women can focus on their core strength: emotional intelligence, a prerequisite of human-centered or heart-centered leadership that places a strong emphasis on empathy, compassion and a genuine concern for the well-being of individuals in the organization.

Primary to human-centered leadership is connection. When women enter a leadership position, connecting with their team and facilitating connections between different members is a priority, as is active listening (without judgment) and investing time and effort in developing trusting relationships.

Hand-in-hand with connection is collaboration. Women leaders can motivate employees to work together to adapt, brainstorm and problem-solve to achieve personal and organizational goals. The key to forging collaborative environments is for women leaders to exhibit vulnerability, especially during challenges and setbacks, and to reassure team members that their thoughts and concerns are valuable. Specifically, they invite rather than fight. Instead of defending their ideas against others and pushing back, they provide opportunities for those involved to voice their thoughts and facilitate discussion in a safe and supported environment.

Inviting team members to share their ideas instead of playing defense is a significant mindset shift because many women feel their position requires defending to be taken seriously as a leader. This is understandable, given the discrimination women have historically faced and continue to encounter in the workplace. But I’ve observed that rash reactions do not lead to good outcomes in my career and my clients’ careers. Women are more than capable of discussing and navigating ideas and resolving conflicts calmly and fairly, with the ability to recognize and manage their emotions and the emotions of others. This skill is a hallmark of human-centered leadership.

Another skill I emphasize to my clients is responsibility for the energy they bring into the room. At work, women face two common obstacles. The first is imposter syndrome, the feeling that they don’t belong. The second is invisible woman syndrome, the feeling that they are overlooked. Both obstacles are disempowering, and many outside forces have conditioned women to feel like this. But to remove these obstacles, women can take responsibility for speaking and confirming they are seen and heard. The fear of being judged, disliked or not respected is a limiting belief. I remind my clients that, in the end, it’s not the issue itself that matters but how they handle the issue. So, a woman who feels like a fraud and doesn’t feel seen and heard can take immediate steps by eliminating these limiting beliefs and obstacles so they can show up more authentically and effectively. There is no one to blame for not being seen or heard. Speaking up confidently for oneself and the organization is at the heart of heart-centered leadership.

Human-centered leadership is not a gendered concept. Everyone feels the effects of women (and men) leading from the heart with compassion and consistency. When leaders prioritize connection, collaboration and responsibility for the energy they bring to the workplace, everyone is empowered, and companies thrive.


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