It appears that more women than ever are stepping up to positions of leadership, but the path is still not as clear and unobstructed as we might think.
When Ella Fitzgerald, the queen of jazz, was asked the secret of her success, she said: “It’s simple, I owe it all to one woman, Marilyn Monroe. She stood up for me. She went to the owner of the Mocambo Club in 1955 and told him that, if he gave me a gig for one week, she’d be there every night at the front table. And she was. The press went wild. I never had to play a small club again.”
There is no question that women can be leaders across all professions but access to opportunity to lead is a crucial step before considering individual leadership style and goals. In the sixty years since Marilyn’s generosity catapulted Ella into fame, more and more women have helped to discard the myth that women can only have success at the expense of another woman. More women today (and men) are realizing that they have power that loses no energy by being shared and are paving the way for women to assume leadership roles.
Alison Levine, who not only was the team captain of the first American Women’s Everest Expedition, as well as served on the faculty at West Point, and had a career on Wall Street, said that finding those people, both men and women, who will help you gain access is crucial. Alison feels that our responsibility is to show people what’s important by your actions and demonstrating your leadership philosophy on a daily basis. In her case, her mantra is: Be the person that others can count on.
If it sounds like we’re making a connection between heroism and leadership – you’re right. Heroism is a trait that is rarely associated with being female, but the acknowledgement that women leaders often behave heroically could move us closer to recognizing that women are natural leaders. In a survey of people’s beliefs about heroes and what heroism represents, eight traits were identified as predominant: smart, strong, resilient, selfless, caring, charismatic, reliable, and inspiring.
Interestingly, when female executives were asked what qualities were present in women who have risen to the highest ranks in their organizations, many qualities echoed those heroic traits. They listed: confidence, grace, diplomacy, tact, insight, listening with good eye contact, moral integrity, global intelligence, warmth, compassion, understanding, transparency, authenticity, passion for their work, competence, good communication skills, self-assurance, being welcoming, and seekers of the best outcome for all parties.
Personal behavior, emanating from these qualities, is the most important source of motivation for managers especially in a fluid system where groups of workers are brought together to manage a specific project over a certain time period. Management of anxiety among staff is a crucial part of a manager’s role and women seem to understand this intuitively. The heroic aspect to this is the atmosphere of safety that is generated and the message that, “this is a workplace where you will be asked to bring your best, and I will support you however I can so that you can do that.”
Historically, definitions and views of heroes and leaders have been associated with masculine pursuits such as military battles and physical valor – activities traditionally seen as inappropriate for women.
But, times are changing. Women are entering the ranks of leadership in increasing numbers and demonstrating that those qualities attributed to the female gender actually enhance productivity. Perhaps the “Heroine’s Quest” is in the making. In the meantime, if you are a woman who has gained access to a leadership position, hold on to those qualities that are the secret to your success:
- Keep your eyes open for other talented people who may need a foot in the door. They may become an asset in your organization.
- Motivate others by showing personal appreciation and approval rather than neglect or disapproval.
- Continue to be sensitive to other people’s feelings and be willing to provide interpersonal support. This can be as simple as a sympathetic look or a message of support.
- Communicate with staff so that they know you are aware of what kind of stress they are experiencing on the job.
- Clarify your ultimate goals and allow people on the day-to-day operational level the autonomy to work within that goal without micromanaging them. A good example of this was the administrator of a nursing home who said her goal was that residents would feel as if they were “at home.” Department heads were charged with figuring out how that would best be expressed in nursing, dietary, laundry – even maintenance and bookkeeping. They ended up being one of the top rated facilities in the region.
- Monitor your staff as to their assignments and abilities. Match job assignments with workers allowing them to work at the top of their competency.
All of these qualities are attributes in which women leaders have excelled. As Joseph Campbell said, “follow your bliss.” You will find your supporters and your place.
Ruth W. Crocker, Ph.D. is an author, writing consultant and expert on recovery from trauma and personal tragedy. Her book, Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War describes her experience following her husband’s death in Vietnam and how she found resources for healing. An excerpt has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2014. She is Writer-In-Residence at Riverlight Wellness Center in Stonington, CT where she teaches the art of writing memoir and personal stories. She is available for workshops, readings and public speaking. Contact her at ruthcrocker.com.