Observations of Female v. Male Leadership

I’ve had about 14 bosses in my professional career, and even more if you count the people that were leading various projects I have been assigned to. If you asked me if they had anything in common, I couldn’t identify one thing that was consistent among them all, only traits that made some of them better than others.

I remember some more vividly than others. There were a few that taught me a lot about how not to lead, or least how I would not choose to lead. There were some who knew me so well that they skillfully challenged me to improve and grow and become capable in ways I would not have predicted.

Here’s a brief list of a few of them, and what was unique about that one. See if you can guess which were male, and which were female.

  • Leader #1 – I hated traveling with this leader. Could not get on an airplane without commenting on the physical appearance of flight crew members.
  • Leader #2 – Consistently gave me work to do that was outside of my job description, but built on my capabilities.
  • Leader #3 – Rarely had a morning production meeting that didn’t include at least one threat to someone in the room. “Do you want to be here next week?” Many times I thought, “No, not really”.
  • Leader #4 – Gave me room to carry out assignments as I saw fit, testing only to make sure we had the same view of the end result.

Can you guess by looking at this list, which were women and which were men? I doubt it, as gender has nothing to do with these behaviors. At least not generally. I’ve known a few women leaders who use behaviors like #3 in the past, but as one told me “You don’t understand. As a woman, I have to show I can be like that if I want to become a senior leader.”

I could share a list of all 14, and you would not be able to guess, from one behavior, the gender of each leader.

At the same time, I can draw a general conclusion here. It’s true for me, and I would guess it is true for many of you.

Male leaders that I have had generally believe and act as if you want to be like them. They offer advice, often unsolicited, about how they would have handled a certain situation. They may have even chosen you to be on their team because they saw something in you that reminded them of themselves.

Female leaders, in my experience, have been far more objective about my development. And usually more helpful when it comes to crossroads. They are more networked outside the boundaries of the company, and have encouraged me to do likewise. That was a lot different than encouraging me to be like them, it was providing an alternative to the standard growth path. And one that has, frankly, made a lot of difference for me. As in introvert, I was never one for conferences, panels, and the many networking opportunities that exist out there (though I hate that I missed disruptHR in Atlanta the other night!). Through the encouragement of one of my leaders, I learned to network in ways that were far more comfortable for me.

I have benefited greatly from many warm, wise, and caring team leaders over the years. I am happy to say that their diversity has contributed both to my appreciation of each one (even the a$$holes) and to my career development. I also think I was fortunate in having as many female leaders as I have had. I firmly believe that their life experience, reflected in their leadership, helped me find my way to a place I would not have imagined 20 years ago, and can’t imagine not having found.


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