In my career in a variety of leadership, coaching and board roles, I have reflected on what makes a great leader. What qualities and skills define greatness in leadership and how do those differ according to gender? Some might argue that the same attributes apply regardless of gender.
This has not been my experience.
Leadership greatness is measured in different ways when male leaders and female leaders are compared and contrasted. Many of the traits celebrated in male leaders are denounced in women leaders: confidence, brashness, assertiveness, and stoicism, for example.
Put simply, powerful women in both corporations and politics are often seen as unlikable.
For 20 years as the CEO of a large non-profit organization, people celebrated my strategic acumen, direct communication style, irreverence and ability to fund raise, convene and coach. I was a palatable powerful woman. I remember early in my career (when not yet adept at hiring the right people) I fired a number of employees in a row. I was celebrated and called “Chain-saw Suzanne” by male board members who marveled at how I was able to make tough decisions and act swiftly seemingly with power.
I consider myself lucky that I did not frequently experience the criticism many women who exhibit the same traits in other realms are often given. We have all seen women leaders described as brash, overly aggressive, or the stereotypical Anna Wintour coldhearted bitch. I often wondered why then was my style so welcome in my work?
An opinion piece in The New York Times published last week as “There’s Nothing Radical About a Female Vice President,” and changed a day later to “Women Can Have a Little Power, as a Treat” may shed some light on this.
While the gist of this piece by Kate Manne focused on why Biden’s choosing a female Vice President is not as big a deal as some might think because that position would pose no real threat to patriarchy, it was the research in this article that was so interesting and new to me.
The piece highlights a research paper from the The American Psychological Association that found women are able to be seen as highly competent and powerful as long as they are also seen as “communal”. Manne defined communal as kind, caring, and considerate of her employees. When women leaders were viewed in this nurturing, open, more gentle way, bias against them disappeared and in some cases even reversed — suddenly that woman leader was seen as more likable than a comparative male leader.
I wonder if this is why women in the nonprofit sector, where I was a leader, are more often celebrated for being pioneers, entrepreneurs, and even visionaries. The entire sector is skewed to be kind, caring, considerate. Women are expected to be doing their work towards a larger mission in service of others and are seen to be helping society (or the community) in their leadership roles. What could be more “communal”?
When I think about the leadership of the greatest direct service nonprofits, most are women. And most are celebrated for their passionate work and sacrifice (financial sacrifice is a hallmark of the non-profit sector). Perhaps these women receive less criticism for their wielding, or just having, power because they are “doing it in the service of good.”
And so I am on a journey to test this hypothesis. I recently founded a for-profit company, Mayacamas Partners, after two decades in the non-profit sector. Mayacamas is named for the magical place in Northern California where our non-profit organization would retreat for a week in the summer years ago. At those retreats we would do our most innovative and disruptive thinking while caring for one another with awards and appreciation and maybe even, gasp, love.
I have been schooled in the non-profit sector and believe that sector understands well what the for-profit sector is starting to now see as more critical — things that matter more today than ever before like leading with mission, vision and values and the importance of building bridges between different ideas, experiences and people. These to me are the traits of the Mayacamas Spirit.
As I have watched powerful and accomplished women leaders be called out and criticized for their leadership style, I have paused to reflect on what that means for me as I go forward. What part of my style in other areas of leading will be an asset or a liability?
Years ago, a male colleague wrote that I led like Mussolini and that he respected and followed my vision because I was relentless for the under-resourced community we served. It will be fascinating to watch how these traits that have served me so well in my previous leadership position are perceived in my current one. My hope is that I continue to bring that spirit of Maycamas into my new venture as a powerful for-profit CEO.