Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur taxpayers own.
When it comes to female leadership, the term “women-led” has become a buzzword, a brand play, and even a credential. Being a women-led company, or having a high percentage of women in senior leadership, is a valuable asset in today’s business climate.
I love that consumers understand something about how it can feel different to work with a women-led company and care enough to seek out women-led organizations. I co-founded a company 16 years ago that benefits from this position. Reflecting the timing, never in our history have we received so many comments from clients 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 the gold standard, in my opinion: emotional intelligence in our conflict resolution, highly communicative collaboration, empowering rather than aggrandizing, and nurturing people in the bottom line. A lot of effort has gone into training male leaders to incorporate these styles, and that is important work.
On the other hand, women leaders are supposed to innately possess these feminine qualities and energies; we have collectively assigned these virtues to all women leaders simply because of their gender.
The problem with this, apart from the obviously problematic reduction of gender to a binary, is that women in leadership are not a homogeneous group, far from it. We all need different kinds of support. Other identity markers, such as sexuality and race, further color how women leaders are viewed and the expectations placed on them.
Related: Feminine Energy Holds the Key to the Future of Business Leadership
The Ends of the Spectrum of Toxic Femininity
Most of us are aware of the “toxic” female boss, the woman who empowers and leads by assuming fierce and classically masculine leadership qualities. Many of us, however, struggle with this woman, especially as our boss.
We have compassion for how it came to be that way: it is operating within the structure that surrounds it. But we are also more severely hurt by the toxic female leader than by a similarly behaving male leader, because there is an element of betrayal at play. Think of the working mother who comments that her son is sick, again. She is the one who interrupts you in meetings or takes credit for your work.
At the other end of the spectrum is a type of toxicity that is much less discussed but recognizable as rescue and victimhood. This woman leads not by mimicking masculine qualities, but by amplifying typically feminine energies to an unhealthy degree. She prioritizes her charges so thoroughly that she does so at the expense of herself. In doing so, she struggles to set clear boundaries, which results in resentment and overwhelm.
Although he operates from a place of genuine love for his team, rather than step back and offer support when there is a problem, he throws himself into fixing it. This may seem useful on the surface, but it ultimately deprives your team of the opportunity to learn, even fail. Protecting his team from exhaustion, he takes charge of everything and quickly becomes a bottleneck for progress. Perhaps uncomfortable with hurting people’s feelings or coming off as overbearing (the double bind familiar to women leaders, especially women of color), she engages in triangulation rather than direct, clear communication.
Does this form of martyrdom appear in your organization?
5 steps to a balanced leadership style
For centuries, male leadership qualities have been praised and rewarded, almost exclusively. Our current turn in the other direction, in strong support of female leadership qualities, is a critical overcorrection, and I wholeheartedly agree. Whether you believe these differences stem from neurobiology or socialization, the best leaders occupy a healthy expression of both energies. Here are several practices women can adopt to develop a balanced leadership style.
Have brave conversations. Studies show that women do not receive feedback that is as honest or qualitative as that received by their male counterparts. As women leaders, we can break the cycle by helping our subordinates know what they need to do to improve and succeed, and by making sure our team members have the same metrics for success.
Adopt an abundance mindset. Women are more cautious and self-limited, while men are inclined to take risks. Don’t let your biggest limitation be your own lowered expectations of what you can achieve.
Own your authority. There is a big difference between collaboration and democracy.
Vulnerability model. Admit when you’re wrong or need help. By showing our teams that vulnerability is not synonymous with weakness, we encourage safe bug research. It also allows men, who are rarely encouraged to show emotion or ask for help, to feel more comfortable doing so.
Invest in your team. The pandemic has made itself clear for so many workers who are really behind them. Be loud and proud that you are and reap the rewards.
Related: Are Women Leaders Walking a Tightrope in Being Seen as Effective and Likeable?
Women need mentors who model these behaviors, regardless of their gender expression. It’s up to today’s leaders to break generational patterns of leadership and create a new template for success, empowering the next to lead more functional, healthy and authentic teams.