Female leaders constantly struggle with the paradox of nice versus tough. Is it better to be popular or lead with a steely edge?
It’s a question that I can honestly say I have never struggled with. I have never concerned myself with being nice or tough. My preference is for fair. Managing people is a real skill. It’s why business schools run courses on the subject.
Research conducted by sociologist Marianne Cooper for Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In showed that likeable women are often not also successful career women.
However leadership consultants Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman found that the more effective the leader, the more likable.
I have worked for leaders who rule by fear and others who lead by ego. Both styles of leader created a difficult work environment in which the business was internally focused rather than customer-centric. When I reflect on the best jobs I have had in my career, the common characteristics are as follows:
- An ego-less leader. What we were trying to achieve wasn’t about her (yes, it was a female leader), it was about a shared business goal that she was clearly driving.
- A culture of trust. Our leader demonstrated an understanding that every member in the team had a part to play in the success of the business and trusted us to make the right decisions. I was fortunate that it was the environment in which I took on my first leadership role at the age of 23. Left to do our thing, my team and I transformed a part of the company that had been in free-fall, without feeling the need to second-guess anyone. It was an extraordinary opportunity for me.
- A supportive and fun workplace. One of the most difficult roles I have had in my career was Women’s Group Publisher at EMAP Australia. Most of our magazines were ranked third or fourth in their categories and we struggled for cut-through with many of our customer groups. It was tough role in which I had to make some difficult decisions. Looking back, it had all the makings of being the least rewarding role on my CV and yet it is the one that I recall most fondly. I maintain that if the company hadn’t been sold most of us would still be there. We were a team that supported each other across categories and departments. We were united against the world and that team spirit enabled us to punch above our weight. The leadership team was focused on lifting the fun factor for the business because it was the point of difference that retained great talent. There is an EMAP Australia alumni and for any excuse at all, we will regroup to reminisce.
Those three leadership characteristics resulted in positive business outcomes. I reflect on them daily as I work with my team to deliver growth for our company.