What does animal behavior have to do with women business leaders? Maybe nothing, but I’ve been fascinated by the idea that the female of the species, as the ones who have the reproductive burden of mating — read: pregnancy — are better than our male counterparts at seeing through BS. Where males are typically the ones puffing up their chests to attract mates, the females have to sift through the noise and see the truth.
In business, I’ve seen this play out with women leaders who have more realistic visions for their startups than men’s aggressive posturing. Where many people see this as a disadvantage, I see it as a superpower.
I used to judge myself for how much of a heart I had, and I wondered why I couldn’t be more of an asshole to drive results. I grappled with the aggressive, masculine persona that dominates the business world — but that just isn’t me. As with so many other traits, the ones seen as “feminine” are devalued as weaknesses. But it’s because of — not in spite of — these “soft” skills like compassion, empathy, and relationship-building that women excel as leaders.
Get in Touch With Your Superpowers
Women are taught from an early age to self-regulate, which makes us far better than men at moderating group discussions to ensure an equitable conversation. As leaders, we’re typically careful not to interrupt others. We pay attention to the group dynamic to make sure everyone gets to have their say. Ironically, this also means we’re better able to spot when other women on our team are getting crowded out of a discussion. I can see when a woman on my team needs a proactive push to speak up. And because even women at the pinnacle of their careers are likelier to be interrupted than their male colleagues, I make sure that once women start talking, they aren’t cut off.
Women are demonstrably more compassionate than men, and that skill is a key part of our leadership. The ability to show our teams we care can make us beloved — and effective — managers. Compassion in the workplace has been shown to reduce anxiety and increase employee engagement. Members of my team have told me that they’ve been searching their entire careers for a place where they can be their whole selves and that having leaders who authentically care about them means they’ve found it. In our women-led company, leaders know how to let people feel seen, heard, and valued, freeing them to do their best work.
Empathy is another skill expected in women, as 61% of adults feel that women politicians are better at being empathetic, and 59% say the same about female business leaders. This ability to “feel” in all kinds of conversations, even strategic ones, and to find the deeper tension in a conversation creates more alignment early on. It also makes people feel heard and known, which can help people feel like they belong in a work context.
A leader who can self-regulate, demonstrate empathy, and show compassion toward her employees is one who can motivate a team and grow a company in healthy, sustainable ways that lead to long-term success. When I tried to hide these traits in myself and to emulate a “male” leadership style, it left me feeling frustrated and inauthentic. Not only that, it just wasn’t as effective. Research shows that authenticity is a game changer for business leaders, and I found that once I let myself be my authentic self as a woman, it helped my team and it grew my business.
Create Your Origin Story
The word “feminine” has lots of connotations. Just because you are a woman doesn’t mean you embody these traditional feminine qualities, not to mention the many men who are compassionate, empathetic listeners. The point is that we as individuals come to an acceptance of what our leadership style looks like, instead of seeing our best traits as weaknesses.
To tap into your superpowers and help your career and your business thrive, use these three steps:
1. Build a team to supplement your strengths. Although there are commonly “feminine” traits, each and every woman is her own individual. You need to see where you are strong and weak. The easiest way is by asking the people around you their evaluation of your top three strengths and blind spots.
Once you have an honest assessment, build around you a team of people with traits that complement your weaknesses. I’m a believer in the model of leaning into and cultivating your strengths while also building the team that can take over your weaknesses.
My COO, for example, leans toward speed and execution, which is an incredible complement to my warmth and vision. Sometimes he moves too quickly and I remind him to actively listen to what others are saying, just as sometimes he notices that someone is taking advantage of my listening and lets me know I am being too credulous. Overall, this combination allows us as a team to have a range of styles to use in all the ups and downs of growing a startup.
2. Amplify your authentic leadership traits. Once you have a solid and honest grasp of your strengths and weaknesses, ask yourself which of those characteristics you want to amplify in your leadership. Let go of any value judgment; stop worrying about looking too weak or too “feminine.”
When I was nervous about my first round of fundraising as a business leader, I tried to fit in with the (mostly male) venture capitalists by cutting my hair and wearing Converse sneakers. For many women, that would be the right style — but it’s not mine. Instead of fitting in, it only made me stick out more. I wasn’t being myself, and it showed in my presentations. Once I started dressing like myself, rather than the male leaders around me, I immediately felt more confident and started seeing better results.
3. Find a female mentor. Find someone who is five to 10 years ahead of you in your career who has gotten even more comfortable in her skin as a woman. This is important because too many women have difficulty figuring out who they want to become. As Billie Jean King famously said, you have to see it to be it. Shadow her for a day so that you can watch her working in her element as a manager or giving a talk to her team. In other words, get an alternate viewpoint on leadership that runs counter to the stories of Steve Jobs and Elon Musk.
The idea that women are the “weaker sex” has been perpetuated for ages. But our compassion, our empathy, our warmth — these are not weaknesses. They’re superpowers.
Tracy Lawrence is the founder and CEO of Chewse, a service that delivers family-style meals to offices from the best local restaurants. Her vision is to transform transactional drop-off delivery into an inclusive meal experience that also gives back through meal donations. Chewse operates in Los [...]