The Upsides and Downsides of Feminine Leadership

A recent survey of 64,000 people in thirteen nations showed that two thirds think “the world would be a better place if men thought more like women.”  The survey’s authors, The survey’s authors, John Gerzma and Michael A’Antonio, assert in their new book, The Athena Doctrine, that organizational leaders with feminine traits—most notably nurturing, collaborative, flexible, and openly communicative—are best suited to today’s social, interdependent, and transparent world.



I’ve had a bird’s-eye view of what works and what doesn’t in leading organizations through my 40 years of work as a management and organizational development consultant. My experience confirms The Athena Doctrine’s findings. The most effective leaders I’ve known possessed the characteristics the doctrine highlights, and more often than not those leaders have been women.

However, I’ve found that there can also be a downside to some of these characteristics, and women leaders are especially susceptible to these pitfalls.

Nurturing. Most female leaders I’ve known nurture their staffs through encouragement, acknowledgement, positive reinforcement, and providing opportunities to take on new responsibilities. But some take nurturing too far by being unwilling to say anything that might hurt an employee’s feelings. They worry so much about being harsh that they put off conveying legitimate criticisms. Employees can’t be helped to change and grow unless they’re told what’s wrong and what they need to do to fix it. Not communicating things you think employees don’t want to hear doesn’t protect or support them—it keeps them stuck.

Overly nurturing leaders also wait too long to fire people. They are so concerned about being unfair or lacking compassion that they put off doing something about a problem employee for months after they know he or she will never make the grade. These leaders keep talking themselves into giving the person “just one more chance.” But keeping people in jobs they can’t handle doesn’t support them; it undermines and erodes their sense of value, competence, and self-esteem. People are nearly always better off if they are pushed to find positions that fit their abilities.

Collaborative. Most of the female leaders I’ve known have had a genuinely collaborative management style. They value input from others, listen keenly to what others have to say, build consensus, and work cooperatively through teams. But there’s a dark side to being collaborative Some women are so concerned about being “democratic” and “non-hierarchical” that they call for all decisions to be made collectively, with everyone on the staff ostensibly having an equal say. More often than not, a small, vocal inner circle really drives the decision and the rest of the staff is left feeling, resentfully, as though the supposed democracy is a pretense.  The most effective leaders do involve their staffs in decisions that affect them, but they own their power and are unafraid, after soliciting input, to assume full responsibility for making the final decision, even in the face of conflict or controversy.

Flexible. This is the one “Athena” trait I’ve seen in as many men as women. Flexible leaders are able to shift gears, adapt to changing circumstances and conditions, and adjust to a variety of styles of operating. They recognize that different kinds of people need different kinds of management; for example, some people work best when they can take the initiative and operate independently, while others blossom only with structure and directions. These leaders are also willing to accommodate individual needs by offering flex-time, telecommuting, and other non-traditional work arrangements. However, this can be a slippery slope. Leaders need to be careful not to offer special privileges to some staff members but not others. Few things lead more quickly to a disgruntled staff than a sense that the boss is playing favorites. Special arrangements need to be grounded in written policies that are equitably applied or that explain the institutional reasons why some employees are eligible and some are not.

Openly communicative. Most of the female leaders I’ve known are open, highly communicative, willing to let their emotions show, and ready to admit when they’ve been wrong. In contrast, the majority of male leaders I’ve known have been reluctant if not loath to acknowledge their errors because they think that doing so will lose them respect or undermine their authority. Yet the opposite is almost always true: few things win more trust, admiration, or loyalty from your staff than having the courage to admit your mistakes, reveal your humanity, and show that you are growing and learning from your missteps, miscommunications, and failures. The only downside I’ve seen to this trait, and it’s rare, is when managers become so familiar with their staffs that they devote too much time to personal matters and confusingly blur the lines between who is the boss and who is the employee.

What have you found to be the upsides and downsides of feminine leadership?

About the Author

Susan Weiss Grosshas spent over 40 years strengthening social justice groups so that their people and programs succeed. Her special love is coaching women to realize their full leadership potential. Among the groups she’s assisted are the American Civil Liberties Union, the Children’s Defense Fund, the National Partnership for Women and Families, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Innocence Project, and Human Rights Watch. Susan has written numerous publications on leading and managing organizations, includingSeven Turning Points: Leading through Pivotal Transitions in Organizational Life. (For more information on Susan and her book, go toLinkedIn,Management Assistance, andAmazon.)