Female leadership: changing business for the better
Workplaces today use more direct communication and less hierarchy. Women helped effect this change.
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These women placed a high value on relationships and judged the success of their organizations based on the quality of relationships within them.Skip to next paragraph
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They preferred direct communication to communication up and down a chain of command.
They were comfortable with diversity, having been outsiders themselves and knowing in their bones what kind of value fresh eyes could bring.
They were unwilling (as well as unable) to compartmentalize their lives and so could draw upon personal experience to bring private-sphere information and insights to their jobs.
They were skeptical of hierarchies and surprisingly disdainful of the kinds of perks and privileges that distinguish hierarchical leaders and establish their place in the pecking order.
They preferred leading from the center rather than the top and structured their organizations to reflect this.
Finally, they were willing to ask big-picture questions about the work they were doing and its value for the world.
New skills for a changing workplace
My book struck a chord, eliciting a response from women around the world and remaining in print for nearly two decades and counting. But what has been extraordinary for me is to watch how the skills exhibited by the women leaders I studied have become more appropriate – and desirable – in today's workplace.
Networked technologies, the evolution of a knowledge economy, and the demographics of globalization all support precisely the skills, talents, and presumptions that women bring to organizations.
When "The Female Advantage" was published, relationship-building was considered a soft skill that a leader, who had to be tough, could not afford. Yet in recent years, as organizations have sought to connect more directly with customers and stakeholders and motivate valuable employees, an ability to nurture strong relationships has become essential.
Technology today not only facilitates but demands direct communication, an advantage for those who are comfortable doing so. Networked technologies also undermine hierarchies, a plus for those who enjoy leading from the center rather than the top.
In a global economy, comfort with diversity has become essential. As work and home become harder to separate in our 24/7 workplace, compartmentalizing becomes a liability.
No more Mr. Tough Guy
Twenty years ago, anyone attending a business conference was likely to hear a speaker observe – without irony – that "unless you're the lead horse, the view never changes." Today, no one would say this.
Twenty years ago, Fortune magazine featured "America's Toughest Boss" in a recurring cover story. It lauded the leader who was tough enough to crack heads, which, of course, was presumed necessary to get things done. This kind of feature has long since been dropped.
The tough-guy approach to leadership is in disrepute these days, with successive tyrants and bullies having come in for censure. Even the most ruthless organizations today feel compelled to put out statements about how they value relationships and support diversity.
Companies compete to take a greener, more holistic approach. They recognize that the "get while the getting's good" mentality that distinguished the industrial era is unsustainable in today's more interconnected world. Leaders emphasize sustainability and contribution and they acknowledge the need to nurture the human spirit. Inclusive has become a buzzword, weblike a simple description of how things work.
And so female-leadership characteristics that just 18 years ago seemed far outside the mainstream are now seen as desirable.
In retrospect, it seems ridiculous that we could have imagined that one half of the human race, excluded from positions of leadership for most of human history, could enter the public sphere and begin to reach positions of real authority and influence without having a significant impact on how organizations were led.
As individuals, women may experience ups and downs over the course of their careers. But the influence they have had on which leadership qualities are valued has been nothing short of extraordinary.