Lead Like a Girl (or Woman)

Blog by Janetta Cravens, Vice President of Programs

“You should be more decisive” was the feedback the nonprofit executive told me she had just received from her board chair. She was sharing with me the nature of the conversation after class one day in which women’s leadership style had come up in the course of the training. I had mentioned that recent research showed that women lead differently than men and women’s approach to leadership is often underappreciated by management. Decisiveness was one of the items quoted in the research.

When faced with a problem to solve, a woman tends to lead by surveying her team, researching trends within the organization and analyzing patterns – which culminates in a greater understanding of why the problem exists and how it could be avoided in the future. This can be seen as “soft” at best or “avoidance” at worst by management, while male style — direct communication and immediate planning — is still the corporate standard. In the nonprofit sector, where the majority of the executive leadership is often conducted by women and the majority of the board leadership is often led by men, this creates an interesting dynamic. I was not surprised to learn that her board chair, aiming to be helpful, had unknowingly reinforced a gender-specific communication pattern in wanting her to be more decisive.

This is not to rehearse tired gender wars or draw out distinctions that aren’t necessary or true. Of course, women can be direct and decisive and men can be concerned about what their team thinks about issues. But, it is to acknowledge that women and men communicate and, therefore, lead differently, and research backs that up. Embracing women as leaders and understanding there is a gender difference — which is not stronger or weaker, just different — is good. If we do not understand these distinctions, we will miss the strengths of what each person bring to the decision-making process and unnecessarily frustrate one another. Diversity brings value to individuals and teams, and balanced teams are stronger.

My time as an athlete in the sport of rock climbing showed me the unique value of women’s leadership. In rock climbing, women’s bodies take the demands of the sport well. Their center of gravity and whole-body muscle distribution means that, as in ballet, they perform admirably well. It wasn’t uncommon to hear male climbers at the base of the cliff compliment each other by saying, “you climbed that just like a girl!” What a contrast to the way that phrase is generally used, where doing anything “like a girl,” especially where athletics were concerned (throwing, running, punching), is usually a demeaning critique. If we accept that women and men lead differently, then what are the unique characteristics that women bring to their leadership positions? What would it take to hear two men complimenting each other in a board room, saying, “Well done, man! You led that meeting just like a woman!”

What do women bring to the leadership equation? This is not an exhaustive or encyclopedic list, but research shows that women tend to lead more by sharing of self in order to build and maintain relationships. In the nonprofit sector, where the success to anything is “relationships, relationships, relationships,” it is no wonder women have gravitated to this field and performed admirably well.

In our Women in Leadership class, we discuss the dynamics present when women lead and explore how this has influenced the nonprofit leadership sector. Since leadership in the nonprofit sector is inherently collaborative between board and staff, we will also discuss how navigating the difference, which is sometimes influenced by genders, is an important element in understanding communication styles. Participants will receive a framework in which to understand the differences, some of the recent research that illustrates women in leadership, and practical steps for improving communication and outcomes. Click here to register for the class.

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Marnie Taylor