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When we talk about female leadership, the term “women-led” has become a buzzword, a brand image, and even a reference. Being a women-led company — or having a high percentage of women in senior leadership — is leverage in today’s business climate.
I love that consumers understand something about how a women-led company might feel different to work with and care enough to look for women-led organizations. I co-founded a company 16 years ago that takes advantage of this position. As a reflection of the moment, never in our history have we received so much feedback from customers that our female leadership is one of the reasons they chose us.
I am also passionate about supporting women-led businesses. The virtues of female leadership energies are, in my opinion, the gold standard – emotional intelligence in our conflict resolution, highly communicative collaboration, empowering rather than glorifying, and nurturing people about the bottom line. A lot of effort has gone into training male leaders to adopt these styles, and that’s important work.
On the other hand, women leaders are believed to possess these feminine qualities and energies naturally; we have collectively assigned these virtues to all female leaders simply because of their gender.
The problem with this – aside from the obviously problematic reduction of gender to a binary number – is that women in leadership are by no means a homogeneous group. We all need different types of support. Other identity traits such as sexuality and race further color how female leaders are perceived and the expectations placed on them.
Related: Feminine Energy Is Key To The Future Of Entrepreneurial Leadership
The far reaches of the toxic femininity spectrum
Most of us are aware of the “toxic” female boss, the woman who empowers and leads by adopting classic male killer leadership qualities. However, many of us struggle with this woman, especially as our boss.
We feel sorry for how she has become like this – she operates within the structure that surrounds her. But we also feel more cut by the toxic female leader than a male leader with similar behavior because there is an element of betrayal at play. Think of the working mom who notices that your child is sick, again. She’s the one who cuts you off in meetings or takes credit for your work.
At the other end of the spectrum is a form of toxicity that is much less discussed, but recognizable as rescue and victimization. This woman does not lead by imitating masculine qualities, but by amplifying typically feminine energies to an unhealthy degree. She prioritizes her accusations so thoroughly that she does so at her own expense. In doing so, she struggles to set clear boundaries, resulting in resentment and overwhelm.
Although she operates from a place of authentic love for her team, rather than stepping back and offering support when there is a problem, she jumps in to solve it. This may be helpful at first, but it ultimately deprives her team of the opportunity to learn — even fail. She protects her team from burnout and takes on everything, quickly becoming a bottleneck for progress. Perhaps uncomfortable with hurting people’s feelings or appearing too authoritative (the familiar double bind for female leaders, especially women of color), she engages in triangulation rather than using direct and clear communication.
Does this form of martyrdom also occur in your organization?
5 steps to a balanced leadership style
For centuries, male leadership qualities have been praised and rewarded almost exclusively. Our current swing in the other direction, in loud support of female leadership skills, is a critical overcorrection, and I’m all for it. Whether you believe these differences stem from neurobiology or socialization, the best leaders occupy a healthy expression of both energies. Here are several practices that women can adopt to develop a balanced leadership style.
Have courageous conversations. Studies show that women do not receive as fair or quality feedback as their male colleagues. As women leaders, we can break the cycle by letting our female reports know what they need to do to improve and succeed, and by making sure we hold our team members to the same metrics for success.
Adopt an abundance mindset. women are more cautious and self-limiting while men tend to take risks. Don’t let your greatest limitation be your own diminished expectations of what you can achieve.
Own your authority. There is a big difference between cooperation and democracy.
Model vulnerability. Admit if you’re wrong or need help. By showing our teams that vulnerability is not synonymous with weakness, we encourage safe investigation of errors. It also makes men, who are rarely encouraged to show emotions or ask for help, more comfortable doing so.
Invest in your team. The pandemic has made it clear to so many workers who genuinely stand behind their backs. Be loud and proud that it is you and reap the rewards.
Related: Are Women Leaders on a Tightrope to Be Considered Effective and Likeable?
Women need mentors who model this behavior regardless of their gender expression. It is up to today’s leaders to break with generational patterns of leadership and create a new template for success, empowering those who follow to lead better functioning, healthier and more authentic teams.