Wednesday For Women: What Women Want in Their Leaders

HBR Blog Network (Feb 2011): What Women Want in Their Leaders :

“…despite high profile female leaders, the number of women in leadership remains stagnant. What is the disconnect?

As it turns out, the assumption that women favor female leaders may not be true. We conducted a survey of 92 mid-career women across three higher education organizations in order to find out what women really want in their leadership…

…What did we discover? Overall, mid-career women did not show any preference for female leaders. In some instances, they identified leadership practices of women that they believed were not helpful, and others that were useful but commonly identified with male leaders. Gender plays no role. Instead, it’s the style of leadership and the actions leaders take that help women move up in their organization…

…From our findings, here are five specific things leaders — both men and women — can do to deliver the best leadership and support to aspiring women:

1) Demonstrate both hard and soft leadership skills. Women prefer leaders who encompass qualities that stereotypically lie on both sides of the gender line. They want leaders who are “compassionate, collaborative, and empathetic,” but also provide “assertive and strategic leadership.” They conceded that demonstrating this range of skills can be more of an individualistic trait of leadership, rather than a gendered one.

2) Take decisive action, fast. Women seek leadership that is decisive and action-orientated. A consultative and tentative approach to decision-making is less effective. One mid-career woman observed, “From my perspective men are a bit more direct — this is how things will be done regardless — whereas, I think women may think, this is the way we should do this, but there may be this and this and this that we should take into account.” Mid-career women are multitasking, under tight deadlines, and task-focused; the most effective leadership is that which takes action quickly, and in doing so, enables them to get on with the job.

3) Inspire and look to the big picture. Inspiring leadership aspirants is imporant as women desire a vision and direction that captures the future. “I’ve had a few male leaders, and I’ve noticed [they] are more relaxed and less anxious, and also more ‘big picture’ in the way they see their role,” one respondent said. The visionary leader is perceived as more confident to take risks. For mid-career women, having a sense of the future direction and how they fit within the organization’s vision focuses their energy and commitment.

4) Balance emotional labor. Women reported that they felt more judged by female leaders. Some of the comments about personal judgment indicated that women can be catty, jealous, and unsupportive. Female leaders can get personal and emotional. However, the respondents also noted that male leaders can be too strategic and unemotional. Having emotional intelligence and knowing how to apply it counters emotional labor and increases the sense of support.

5) Focus on leading. Mid-career women are able to discern those leaders who are controlling and managerial as leaders seeking to consolidate and maintain their own position. This kind of maintenance creates frustration and tension. The leader is perceived as more concerned about their position rather than leading others. This kind of leadership weighs down the action and energies of other professionals. Taking risks and enabling innovation are examples of leadership that drives mid-career women to follow and take action.”


  1. David – it’s great to see some data which supports the fact that outstanding Leadership is not about gender but about how you actually behave.


  2. Interesting! I have to concur – I have had women leaders that have not inspired me – but I have been fortunate to have some excellent leadership from women. Sad to see the ranks are still so male dominated – as the lack of female leadership (at least in my industry) is not inspiring. The lower ranks are predominantly female – but where do they go? For the future generations, I do hope to see more women in leadership roles, but you raise some excellent points – the traits of leaders do not need to be gender specific, but they do tend to be that way.


  3. As a woman, I have found unfortunately that many times it is harder to work for women. (Again, I am making general statements, not all women are this way.)

    I find that most of the female supervisors that I have worked under are less consistent with instructions, play more games, seem more insecure and have something to prove and are more emotional than their male counterparts.

    Not intending to start a flame war at all, but in my 30 year career, I have found that I prefer to work with males.

    Having said that, my current supervisor is a female and does not show any of the negative traits that I described. She is the first female supervisor that I have actually thrived under.

    Women must have more self-confidence in the workplace in order to be effective.


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