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3 leadership “truths” women should ignore

4 min read


Leadership advice runs rampant on the Internet, which is fine because most of it comes from a place of wisdom and reflection.

If you’re a woman aspiring to lead, however, there is one tiny problem with these “how to” and “Top 10” lists. Since our dominant leadership culture is male, the majority of the advice is largely designed to make men better leaders. In most cases, the advice is fine for women, too, but watch out because some of it can be disastrous to your career.

Specifically, ladies, keep an eye out for the leadership lessons trying to help men overcompensate for some testosterone-induced bad habits. These bad boss habits include lack of empathy, rigidity and egotism. On average, this is not your problem!

Here’s the catch for the women. On the whole, women are already empathetic, flexible and happy to deflect credit. If you’re a high-potential woman, following advice that tells to you overemphasize these traits is at best unnecessary and at worst will encourage you to go too far in the wrong direction. You see, leaders have to have some inflexibility, emotional distance and healthy ego in order to effectively herd the cats and manage the chaos of modern business.

Simply put, while on average men could use a little more flexibility, empathy and humility, women — on average — could use a little less!

Here are the three most damaging bits of leadership advice that women should learn to take with a boulder of salt.

Good leaders should listen empathetically.

Empathy is good. It helps us relate to each other as human beings. Good leaders need to know how to do this. If you’re a woman who already knows how to listen empathetically (hint: most of us do), then the advice you need is, “Good leaders should develop their ability to balance empathetic listening with emotional distance.”

When we get too involved empathizing, we can lose our objectivity. This makes it hard for us to balance the needs of the person we’re talking to, ourselves and the business. Our emotions can obscure the win-win and can make it emotionally exhausting to deliver the “tough love” that good leadership sometimes requires. Release the assumption that you must empathize to be liked; it’s simply not true.

Good leaders should be flexible and accommodating.

Yep. Flexibility is good, too. Our fast-as-information economy requires — and enables — many minds in the mix and the organizational facility to adjust to quickly changing circumstances. If you’re a woman who’s already good at accommodating the opinions of others, watch this tendency carefully and be sure that you’re not recognizing others so much that you don’t take ownership of your own opinion.

Good leaders are flexible when appropriate and take a stand when necessary. Your objective isn’t to get others to agree with you, but to provide value in the process and invite you into more and more important discussions. People will appreciate your skill as a facilitator, but they’ll go out of their way to include you for your insights and opinions. Learning to take a stand is the key skill to master in pursuit of influential leadership.

Good leaders don’t seek the limelight.

Sharing credit is a critical way to engage the team, no question. Most women are uncomfortable taking credit to start with, however, so instead should follow this advice: Good leaders find authentic and appropriate ways to take credit for leading their teams and for their personal additions to the team’s success. If you don’t make sure people know what you have accomplished and are capable of, then no one will know.

Too many of us rely on colleagues, bosses, mentors and sponsors to be your mouthpiece, but you’re undercutting yourself if you do this; their support has greater impact when you get the word out on yourself, too. We’re not well-trained as little girls on how to take credit without feeling like we’re bragging, but as an adult you’ve got to get over it and learn to do this well. It can be done. Find your way to this important skill.

Women have the emotional intelligence to rise to every leadership challenge, and we do it far more often than most people know. To rise even farther, learn to filter the leadership advice you’re getting and filter out the stuff the guys need, but you don’t.

Dana Theus is president and CEO of InPower Consulting, creating business cultures by design that integrate the emotional intelligence lessons learned from studying women in leadership, and is a regular contributor  to SmartBlog on Leadership. Follow her on Twitter at @DanaTheus and on LinkedIn