Leadership is a lot of things. What it’s not is male or female. I’m not arguing that women in leadership roles have a harder time rising to the top (they do). I’m also not pretending that certain traits are considered more masculine and viewed more favorably when exhibited by men than by women in the same power positions (they are). Often, when a woman is forthright and assertive, she’s deemed aggressive; a man, on the other hand, is a go-getter. But let’s put the perception tendencies of society at large aside. Good leadership is defined by behavior – not gender.
Of course, personal preference, like perception, can be hard to shift. However, here’s proof that change can – and does – happen. For decades, Gallup has asked American workers about their leadership preferences. In 2017, for the first time since 1953 when Gallup started measuring this data point, the majority of respondents (55%) no longer prefer male bosses. They simply want an engaged, authentic leader. It’s about time.
I’ve thrived in leadership roles for many years. Sure, it’s been challenging. I haven’t done everything right, every time. And I don’t have all the answers. I’m still learning and growing. But I do believe I’m good at what I do – and I credit the combination of four key leadership qualities.
Know your people. Take the time to really get to know your team – beyond business. What does their spouse or significant other do? Is their parent in poor health? What do they do on weekends? Which kid plays soccer; which likes gymnastics? What inspires them, inside and out of the office? When you genuinely care about what’s important to someone, you can have real conversations and develop mutual empathy. That’s huge, in every aspect of life and work. Of course, there are folks on my team who don’t like to share, and I don’t push them to get personal. But more importantly, they know I’m here to listen if/when they ever want or need to talk.
Ask for and accept feedback. Then, act accordingly. Feedback is a gift. Be open to it and take it all in: opinions, perspectives, critiques, compliments. If you don’t, you’ll end up stuck – with your team and in your own professional development. After all, the way I would do something or what I believe is a good idea, might not be what’s best for the situation at hand or the people involved in it.
Every quarter, I host an all-hands meeting with my team. Typically, I ran through recognitions, followed by discussion or presentation on informational topics, and closed with Q&A. Then someone suggested I book-end the agenda by leading with rewards, then focusing on questions, and ending with a team celebration. Spirits are high, minds are engaged, and time is well spent. Something that simple can have a substantial impact. Don’t take feedback lightly – or without follow-up. It keeps you open minded, and constantly learning, stretching and growing. And acting on it, when appropriate, shows my team and others that I not only hear them, but I value their input and ideas.
Know your trade. Basics, like business acumen, is a given; it’s a must-have “skill” no matter the business or department or team you lead. But not everyone succeeds as a generalist leader. I strongly believe you need to know your domain like no one else. I’m a communications expert. I understand and have experienced, at some point in my career, the pain points – and joys – of every “job” for which my team is responsible. Not only do I “get it” but I’m positioned to help wherever, whenever needed. I can jump in and/or offer meaningful advice; it’s not just lip service. Is this a required quality skill of good leadership? Maybe not. But I truly believe it’s an essential element of being an authentic leader – and for me, that’s not negotiable.
Be human. Yes, you need to wear the corporate hat. But it’s also important that your team know you won’t compromise your values. You’re a leader but you’re a person, too. I support my team and they know it; they have an ally and an advocate in me. They also are keenly aware of my expectations: have one another’s back. Be honest – with each other and especially with me. Work hard. And if you can’t do that, let me know. We all have those days. It’s okay. I get it.
I list this “be human” quality last for a reason. It’s the foundation of who I am and everything I do. Everything else you can learn, but you can’t learn to be genuine. Leadership isn’t about being tough. It’s not about being loved either. I aspire to be a leader my team wants to follow. I believe I’ve succeeded – and it has nothing to do with gender.