It’s a relatively common perception that leadership traits fall in line with gender differences. A large body of research demonstrates this to be mostly true. Men tend to be thought of as decisive, direct, strong and logical leaders. Women, on the other hand, tend to be seen as community-driven, compassionate, patient and trustworthy leaders.
While more women are slowly rising up the ranks in corporate America, there are still massive gaps in the number of women who hold top-level positions. In fact, this Pew study showed that just 4.8% of women hold corner-office jobs at Fortune 500 companies. When it comes to politics, the numbers are slightly better but still skewed toward men. The U.S. Senate has just 25 female senators (meaning 25% of the Senate is female), while the House of Representatives has 102 women serving their states (23.4% of the House is female).
While this still seems very low (since women make up more than 49% of the world’s population, according to World Bank estimates), the good news is that the balance is shifting, and more women are taking positions of power and leadership on both the world and corporate stages.
Despite these still rather abysmal numbers, there are a handful of traditionally female traits that both men and women can leverage and use to become great leaders.
Empathy is traditionally seen as a feminine characteristic. However, according to a study by Development Dimensions International, a global leadership consulting firm, it is the single most important leadership trait that helps guarantee overall success.
While it’s considered a soft skill, or an interpersonal/people skill, empathy in a leader promotes both cooperation and commitment in the workplace. In fact, empathy has become such a crucial trait for leaders and companies that many corporations offer empathy training, according to a 2016 story in The Wall Street Journal.
You’ve probably heard the adage that a rising tide lifts all boats, right? Empathy makes a great leadership quality because it offers employees and customers alike the opportunity to feel heard. When they feel heard by a leader, people are more open to options and more willing to meet others halfway. That creates a collaborative and open environment where even better work can be done.
In fact, empathy can be so compelling that it improves overall job performance. A whitepaper by the Center for Creative Leadership, published in 2015, shows a direct correlation between empathy and improved job performance. Leaders who show empathy for their direct reports are perceived by their bosses as better performers.
Women generally don’t like to toot their own horns, thus humility is often considered a characteristically female leadership trait. Unfortunately, corporate America often conflates confidence with competence because, as the Harvard Business Review notes, people generally confuse displays of confidence as shows of competence. Humility, on the other hand, allows a leader’s humanity to peek through, and that inspires people to follow.
Not only does humility inspire “followship,” but it also tends to help organizations focus more pointedly on their overarching goals. Take this 2015 study of 105 computer hardware and software firms published in the Journal of Management. It shows that humility in CEOs leads to better performance and increased flexibility, cooperation, and collaboration in developing strategies.
Even Jim Collins, the well-known author of the famed business book Good to Great, notes two common traits among successful CEOs: humility and sheer determination. When things go off the rails, humble leaders can openly admit their mistakes and take responsibility, which shows others that being human and imperfect is acceptable.
While humility is a great leadership trait, it can go too far. Sliding into subservience, introversion or weakness is never a good way to lead an organization. Not speaking up when you have something to be proud of or when you have a great idea does not help anyone progress. A recent study by the Harvard Business Review shows that women tend to be harder on themselves than men, and that’s something that can be detrimental to leadership. Humility is all about balance.
Another female leadership trait is persuasiveness. A 2005 yearlong study from Caliper of more than 300 women leaders at major firms around the world showed that women tend to be more persuasive than men – thanks, in large part, to their humility and empathy.
According to the study, women tend to be more attuned to situations, which means they are able to accurately take in information on all sides, synthesize it and incorporate it into a larger solution. This skill makes them measurably more persuasive than their male counterparts.
Part of the skill of persuasion means genuinely believing in the idea you are presenting. As Charlotte Beers, the former CEO of Ogilvy & Mather, points out in her 2012 article for Fast Company, pathos and passion are incredibly compelling – and they can help move the needle toward success, both personally and professionally.
4. Entrepreneurial spirit
According to that same Caliper study, females tend to be more willing to take small risks than male leaders. This is largely a result of women’s willingness to reinvent the rules and turn challenges into opportunities.
Women are often willing to flex the rules to get things done. Part of this impetus is a result of the willingness to pursue a more fulfilling workplace and life. In fact, the Harvard Business Review study we cited earlier shows that women excel in taking initiative and driving for results.
That could be because women tend to push creative limits and innovate to get better both personally and professionally. A 2006 study cited by the American Psychological Association shows that women are more likely to be “transformational leaders” and tend to motivate employees to be more dedicated and creative.
Female leaders also tend to be rated better than men at taking the initiative. Again, the Harvard Business Review study shows that women outscore men on the skill of initiative-taking.
Women, in general, tend to bounce back slightly quicker than men in the face of adversity. A study from the payment management company Paymentsense shows that women, in general, handle (and bounce back) from stress more effectively than men. That means when the chips are down, women tend to move past the initial stress more quickly and effectively than men.
The study also shows that 64% of female leaders surveyed said they encounter a stressful event that stops them from thinking clearly at least one time per day. More than 70% of men reported that they experience stressful events that prevent them from thinking clearly in the same period.
Because women tend to be the family caretakers, they also tend to juggle stresses a bit better in general – because they’re constantly negotiating the home-work balance.
Leveraging female leadership traits for success
Just because these leadership traits tend to be more prevalent in female leaders doesn’t mean that they can’t be cultivated by leaders of any gender. By honing your skills as a leader and generally good human, you can easily attain leadership success. Focusing on soft skills like humility, empathy, resilience, entrepreneurial spirit, and persuasiveness can help increase both the financial success of a company and the happiness quotient of employees and their family members.