Women and Leadership

Woman-leadershipThis week at Whiteboard Worldwide Headquarters, Ruth and I have been thinking about Women and Leadership, particularly with respect to training.  I have to be honest that my first thoughts were, “Why would women need Leadership training that is any different than the training we would offer to men?” I hated the thought of saying that women needed something different or special – to us leadership meant building relationships, coaching your team, developing and executing in a “one-size-fits-all “strategy.

The literature and media I looked at seemed to emphasize that women need more training, whether it be in order to debunk  media’s presentation of “stereotypical” women and their roles, or to add some additional skill-sets that would make women more successful. I reached out to a few feminist women in my circle who hold leadership roles, and was overwhelmed with their excitement and passion on the topic – but I still wasn’t convinced.

“Part of the hesitance to embrace powerful women is embedded in feminism itself,” says Buzzfeed’s Anna North. “Feminism is a movement founded on women’s status as a marginalized group,” North writes, “and as a woman moves closer to the centers of corporate or government power, she can come to seem like, for lack of a better word, the Man.”

Could I agree with this? I’m not sure!

My government leadership experiences have all been peppered with a wide array of women leaders, many of whom were stellar strategists and coaches, and seemed to kibosh any and all barriers to women being successful in leadership.  I have been fortunate in my career to have these leaders to guide me to take on leadership roles and excel in them.  So my experience makes it hard for me to say that women are treated differently than men in the workplace.

But how do others feel?  Do women need to learn how to react, mitigate, and respond to situations where they are being treated differently? (Click to Tweet)

This week, Ruth and I delivered some “executing on strategy” training to a team of 30+ engineers (95% male) and my mindset changed a little.  Talk about a tough crowd. My inner-self was torn between being my best, teaching the material that I knew was great in the ways I know how – and running out of the room to have a nice cathartic cry.  Wow. I don’t think I had ever experienced that before, and it was alarming to me. Did I have to win over this crowd because I am a woman? Was it because I’m not an engineer? Were there other reasons? I don’t really know. To be honest, my biggest issue is that I cannot prove that any of those reasons was the culprit. So many questions, so few answers.

While I still have questions and a lot to learn about the topic, I’m going to start this series of blogs on Women and Leadership with the concept of like-ability.

Do women prefer to be likeable over successful?

Do I need to be affirmed to feel successful? Ruth and I had a retreat last winter – and we learned that we feel the most satisfied about our work when we receive positive affirmations – either from each other, our clients, or especially training participants.  It made us re-focus our strategic plan on training in 2014 – because we like that feeling and want more of it.

To quote Jessca Vallenti – to be driven by this like-ability – “means that your self-worth will always be tied to what someone else thinks about you, forever out of your control.”

I felt a little out of control in that session of engineers who were highly skeptical of the methodology we were trying to teach. Deep down inside, however, I knew that I could turn them around. More, I knew Ruth and I could turn them around.

So I actually knew things were in fact in my control.

My ability to relay the content to the participants and get them to “get it” (or “grock it” as Ruth would say), was completely in my power. My ability to comprehend their engineering examples and summarize and repeat them would improve my credibility, would get me to understand their world, and would ultimately get them on board.

But is that unique to me? Is that some skill that I have that other women don’t? And if so – WHY?

Now, I think we did turn the course around and reach the curious and open side of that group of engineers, and we saw success.  I’m still considering the concept of how much they liked me in my mind – and how that impacted me.

It’s still early in my research, and I  have a lot of work to do to solidify my views, however, I did learn a little about myself in that room.  Most importantly I wondered if I could harness that learning and help other women . Am I a feminist yet? Stay tuned for this series in Women and Leadership to find out more.

Do you have thoughts on women and leadership? What concepts do you think a leadership course on women should have?  Comment below or send us a Tweet @whiteboardcons with the hashtag #womenleaders.

To be continued……

Until next time,



3 thoughts on “Women and Leadership

  1. Well done Nicole!! I love your provocative honesty and clarity. Great topic!!!!!!

    Some Susan thoughts –

    The comment “To quote Jessca Vallenti – to be driven by this like-ability – “means that your self-worth will always be tied to what someone else thinks about you, forever out of your control.”

    “Like-ability” tied to self worth is a huge block that hinders so many. When I have a need to feel “liked”, I instantly “feel” myself disempowered and my confidence wavers. There is a big difference between the need to be liked and the need to be respected.

    When you speak about “My ability to relay the content to the participants and get them to “get it” (or “grock it” as Ruth would say), was completely in my power. My ability to comprehend their engineering examples and summarize and repeat them would improve my credibility, would get me to understand their world, and would ultimately get them on board.” All of what I read here speaks to me about respecting your participants. Love it.

    What a gift you are to be in this place of “striving” with the ultimate goal being what will serve your participants. By respecting them you are earning their respect.

    In the end, I truly believe that bringing your honesty and joy (with preparedness being a given) is your greatest strength. Dare I add – male OR female.

    Excited to hear more!!


  2. Whether you think women need more, or different, training in leadership depends on what you think leadership is. A depressingly large number of people appear to think that leadership is a jumped up sort of management, with some nod to people skills bolted on in a way that hasn’t been thought through.

    However, the number of people routinely acknowledged to be leaders who are not managers shows leadership cannot be a type of management. Jesus Christ, Gandhi, the Queen, Mandela in his later years: none of these people managed a team. We would like our presidents, prime ministers, archbishops and many other heads of institutions to be leaders, and, if they have some vestigial management duties, that’s not the reason why we want them to be leaders. Tens, hundreds of thousands of people, without the handicap of fame, quietly demonstrate that management and leadership are not like apples and pears.

    If you look to how the British army defines leadership, as encapsulated in the motto of the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst—which trains British army officers, and many from around the world—you’ll find it is “Serve to lead”. What this means (and this was confirmed to me personally by one of my clients, who used to teach leadership at Sandhurst) is that, if a junior officer thinks they are going to lead a squad of trained soldiers, he or she had better be in service to them first.

    The idea of being in service is anathema to the British because they don’t understand that it is not servitude. It certainly isn’t about making oneself, or believing one is, inferior to others.

    Nor is the idea of servant-leadership new nor startling.

    In line with these ideas, I suggest that, whereas management is a job—it _is_ a set of behaviours—leadership is an attitude. Management is to leadership as apples are to smiling. It’s a basic category error to equate the two.

    A boss in not, by virtue of their being a boss, also a leader (though one hopes they are). The person in charge is not, by virtue of their being in charge, a leader (though one hopes they are). Because they are carelessly called leaders doesn’t make them leaders.

    An attitude is a complex, interacting set of emotions and feelings, and thoughts and beliefs, ultimately developed in individuals by their experiences or, more accurately, their memories of their experiences.

    What might a useful, plausible definition of leadership be? Well, I suggest the a useful definition which happens to explain the behaviour of pretty much any good leader you care to study, is that leaders create a facilitating environment in which the individual, the team and the enterprise on which they are engaged, can all thrive.

    That definition is constructive. It rings true. It embraces emotional intelligence. You can hold this definition against much that is written about leadership and see that it fits and, indeed, explains what leaders are doing.

    Of course, it is an approach to leadership which is rejected by big bosses, who tend to be where they are for reasons other than a need to develop a constructive, productive environment (this is especially true of politicians, of course). It does not sit well with the ego-driven, quasi-psychopathic or narcissistic personalities encountered in the ‘upper’ reaches of many organisations (in business, the public sector, government, religions, sport and so on), and is not intended to. It’s designed explicitly to exclude such people all the time they continue to behave the way they do, while, at the same time, providing a path of welcome, should they decide they are able to let go of their need to be right about how they are currently.

    I deliberately chose the term ‘facilitating environment’ for two reasons:

    One because, although it’s rather clunky, it does say what I mean: an environment, a context, a way of being even, which facilitates, nurtures the thriving of others;

    Two because I like to be provocative and point up the relation between leadership and something unexpected: motherhood. The ‘facilitating environment’ was a concept developed by the paediatric psychiatrist DW Winnicott in the fifties and sixties. Winnicott said a primary role of the mother is to create a facilitating environment in which her child can thrive. (In particular, the mother cannot do the thriving for the child.)

    This is a rich, multi-level metaphor showing the parallels between parenthood and leadership and, the more you delve into it, the more you get from it. (I certainly do not exclude fathers or other care givers from a parental role, it is just that, undoubtedly, it is the mother that gives birth to the child.)

    So, the conclusion is that, at an instinctive level, women should be more likely to be born leaders than men. Their leadership development may be different than that of men for this reason. (I don’t say training, because you can only train skills and, if leadership is an attitude, it isn’t a set of skills, and therefore cannot be trained. It can be nurtured in a facilitating environment in whixh the would be leader is most likely to develop these qualities.)


  3. It is evident from all organisations that take leadership seriously that women need leadership development opportunities separate from men due to the fact that men tend to dominate and occupy the space at joint sessions, pushing women aside in discussions and hence to remain back benchers and excluded from the real self development work.

    Even in Norway, which is at a different level of the gender equality scale than most countries in the world, not least the US, we pursue separate leadership development programmes for women to increase the number of women in leadership positions in society. The Norwegian Employers’ Association has its own leadership devleopment programme for women called ” Female Future”. The aim of such programmes is to build self confidence, self esteem andd leadership skills with women in order for them to break the glass ceiling and enter middle and senior level leadership positions in public and private enterprises. Such personal development opportunities encourage to find their own female leadership style which is authentic and genuine, owned by the women themselves. Programmes help women to step out of their roles as managers and take on leadership positions in organisations. One purpose of the leadership devleopment programmes is also to provide women with space to discuss women’s issues like sexual harrassment, violence and challenging working relationships where they are safe from male interference. I am an old progressive women’s rights activist and do not feel that there is any shame to arrange something special for women. They deserve and the society deserves it. More women in leadership positions will benefit both sexes. It does not diminsh women or weaken their negotiation power with men. To the contrary it increases their capabilities to fulfill challenging roles in society which traditionally have been occupied by men ! My social enterprise; “Half the World” is establised to offer netbased leadership development programmes for women to provide opportunities for women to grow and develop their skills because I have realised over a long career that no change happens in society unless women are fully onboard and take leadership in their own hands and on their own premises! Please visit my website http://www.halveverden.wordpress.com and let me know what you think.

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