Got Leadership Grit and Grace?

I’m a business person who has hit the trifecta of stereotypes: I’m a woman who is blonde and overweight. Despite being a vice president who managed a department of 150 people in a $2 billion annual revenue organization, a male boss felt free to describe me to the CEO as a “soft and round Aunt Polly” and a female colleague as a “colorful little butterfly.” Physical descriptors were absent in his summary of my male colleagues.

Biases, both implicit and explicit, and stereotypes make it challenging for businesswomen to be seen as both good leaders and good women. Those same biases and stereotypes work against businessmen who dare to be compassionate, nurturing, and sensitive to the needs of others. Economic warrior bosses more interested in profits than in principles and relationships look the other way when these men are described as wimps and the women as bossy.

Is that the kind of workplace culture we want for our children and grandchildren? I hope not. Women who are teaching their daughters that they can be confident and equal, and men who are teaching their sons to be thoughtful and inclusive, can partner for change.

Sometimes change needs something big to spark it; other times, it flows from a series of small actions. Provided both women and men are willing to modify a few workplace practices, together we can begin the cycle of changing how leadership is defined and practiced. Organizational change begins only when people are willing to change.

9 ways to be a better leader

Whether you are a male or female leader, here are nine actions you can take to bring equity and gender-balanced inclusiveness to your leadership practices.

Be mindful of gender stereotypes that can influence your thinking about which sex is better suited for certain kinds of work. Social conditioning nudges us to think of leadership in terms of masculine traits, which puts women and feminine attributes at a disadvantage. So, if you find yourself believing that men make the better bosses because they’re good at taking charge and women the better assistants because they’re the best at taking care, stop. If you always ask the women in your meetings to take the notes or plan parties, stop. If you question the leadership potential of a kind-hearted man, stop. If you describe assertive women as shrill, stop. Stereotypes push us to apply a specified set of expectations to a whole group of people. When we do that, we ignore individual attributes and deny people their potential.

Psychologists once believed that only bigoted people used stereotypes. Now the study of unconscious bias is revealing the unsettling truth: We all use stereotypes, all the time, without knowing it. We have met the enemy of equality, and the enemy is us.~Annie Murphy Paul, journalist and author

Check for inconsistencies in how you select a man or a woman for a job or evaluate their promotion readiness. Research tells us that women are judged on their past performance, men on their future potential. Why not evaluate all candidates on both their past performance and future potential?

Assure that all voices are heard equally in the meetings you conduct. If the men keep interrupting the women, call it out. If the women remain silent, call them into the discussion. If anyone co-opts an idea that someone presented earlier, assure that proper attribution is given.

Monitor how you pay your people. If you supervise others, look for—and correct—any wage disparities that exist between sexes, ethnicities, etc., holding the same positions.

Sponsor both women and men and be proactive about it. For anyone who has the gall to insinuate that an inappropriate relationship exists in a mixed sex sponsorship, call out their boorish and stereotypical thinking.

Escape the myth that power is evil and influence is better. Sadly, there are those who use the power of their position for personal gain. Don’t confuse power with the person using it. All of us have the power to make a positive difference and make appeals to others to join in and create a business environment in which results and relationships are equally rewarded and recognized.

Inclusion works to the advantage of everyone. We all have things to learn and we all have something to teach. ~Helen Henderson, writer

Avoid the “parent” trap. When a man becomes a parent, it’s assumed he’ll be more dedicated to his work because he has a family to support. When a woman becomes a parent, it’s assumed she’ll be less dedicated to her work because she has a family. Be on the lookout for these incorrect assumptions. Along the same lines, don’t penalize either moms or dads for using family leave time.

Don’t confuse presence for true inclusion. Just because there’s a woman or a minority on a team doesn’t mean there’s an inclusive, participative environment with meaningful engagement. Ask yourself some tough questions about whether your leadership practices are reflective of real participation or just window dressing presence.

Be willing to be vulnerable so your bias can be detected. While we all work hard to not be biased, we still are. Create mechanisms so that the presence of biases can be safely and nonjudgmentally identified and eliminated. Seeing other’s biases is much easier than seeing our own, so tact, grit, and grace are essential for openness.

If we are to achieve a richer culture, rich in contrasting values, we must recognize the whole gamut of human potentialities, and so weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each diverse human gift will find a fitting place. ~Margaret Mead, anthropologist


As you head out to work tomorrow, remember the shining eyes and hopeful faces of your children or other young people in your life, and build the kind of place where you want them to work.

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