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Female leadership: changing business for the better

Workplaces today use more direct communication and less hierarchy. Women helped effect this change.

By Sally Helgesen / January 17, 2008

Chatham, N.Y.

Until a few months ago, Zoe Cruz and Sallie Krawcheck were the most powerful women on Wall Street. It was speculated that both would become CEOs of their Wall St. powerhouses – Morgan Stanley and Citigroup. Instead, in recent months, Ms. Cruz was ousted and Ms. Krawcheck demoted, leading to hand-wringing about how women seem be losing ground as leaders.

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Perhaps because I've been studying female leadership for the last two decades, this narrative had a familiar ring for me – some variation of the "women are floundering" theme crops up every few years.

But while the progress women have made as leaders may not have been as rapid or smooth as some of us had hoped or expected, the impact women have had on what we perceive to be desirable in our leaders continues to grow.

The real story, it seems, is about influence rather than numbers. Women have brought to the workplace a comfort with direct communication, relationship-building, diversity, and more – and these are the skills best suited for leaders in today's workplace.

Women: Talk football, play golf

When I published "The Female Advantage: Women's Ways of Leadership" in 1990, it was the first book to focus on what women had to contribute to organizations rather than how they needed to change or adapt.

At the time, women were being urged by a phalanx of experts to conform to a mainstream leadership style that was considered a fundamental requirement for anyone who hoped to exert authority in public life. Gurus of every variety advised women to start using football metaphors in meetings, take up golf even if they disliked it, and pull rank on subordinates in order to show their skill at keeping people in line.

"Play the game" was the message aimed at women seeking success in the male worlds of business, government, law, academia, and the military. Betty Harragan, author of the bestselling "Games Your Mother Never Taught You," summed up the conventional wisdom of the day in her amusing and often helpful guide for women: She advised women to leave their values at home. You're in the army now, was her message. So get with the program, and if it moves, salute it!

This conventional wisdom was based on three assumptions. First, organizations were not going to change simply because women had begun to enter them in substantial numbers.

Second, changes wrought by the networked technologies that were then evolving would not fundamentally change organizational structures or reshape people's expectations of their leaders.

And third, women's handicaps as leaders, the result of their age-old exclusion from the public world, would always outweigh whatever advantages they might confer.

What female leadership looks like

Having spent a lot of time working in a variety of companies, I was convinced that these assumptions were not necessarily true. On the contrary, it seemed obvious that organizations were beginning to undergo rapid and unpredictable changes as demographics, technology, and the economics of work shifted. It seemed that women might squander a historic opportunity to influence the public world if they were discouraged from honoring and developing their distinctive skills.

I decided to test this notion by spending time with some of America's most talented and confident women leaders. My goals were: (1) to identify what women at their best could bring to a range of enterprises and (2) to bring to public awareness an appreciation of those qualities. My study included a highly diverse mix of women – entrepreneurs, corporate executives, and nonprofit leaders. Yet I found that they had certain characteristics in common.