Guest post by our collaborative partner, Niamh O’Brien

At a recent conference I asked a speaker on leadership whether he thought there was a growing awareness of the importance of feminine leadership characteristics in making businesses successful today. The answer I got was how he considers male leaders to be as good as female leaders and vice versa. It was not the question that I was looking to have answered. I know that there are amazing leaders of both genders out there. I was curious whether there is a growing awareness that to succeed in this increasingly fast-moving, ever changing, competitive environment having a balanced blend of leadership skills is absolutely essential and not just a nice-to-have.

From his response I wondered whether I had touched a gender sensitive nerve or whether the speaker had simply misunderstood what I’d meant. The circumstances weren’t appropriate for me to clarify that. Instead I came away wondering whether this is still a touchy topic, and whether we need to do more to move to having a dispassionate and scientific way of evaluating and acknowledging what leadership skills businesses need to survive and more importantly, to thrive today. In that way we could have an unreserved and unapologetic freedom to develop and create the most competitive and successful leadership teams.

Having being a Transformational Leader for more than two decades I know from experience what skills are critical in leading businesses through fast change and growth. Many of these I consider to be feminine leadership characteristics as opposed to a more traditional command and control approach to management, however although I consider these to be feminine characteristics by nature, they are in no way exclusively held by female leaders.

What do I mean by feminine leadership characteristics?

I mean:

  • The ability to nurture others and grow their self worth, drive, and capability, and in that way enable them to perform at their best. This focus on people sets the tone of a high performance culture and drives results, even in the most challenging environments.

  • Having a strong bias towards communication and in particular listening. This type of leader believes that a decision or answer is not always the first available and validates their thinking by seeking different perspectives. As a leader of Transformation I know that opportunities and potential problems can be detected early by listening closely. Having this skill is critical in leading through ambiguous, changing circumstances.

  • Feeling a burning need to have everyone collaborating to their maximum, knowing that energy must be focused on solutions and customers rather than on internal politics and turf. Leaders with this capability more highly value collective success rather than individual success, and they smash through corporate silos. This skill is essential in a resource stretched environment.

For a start because the Millennial generation form a growing part of our workforce, and they will represent 75% of it by 2025. Research tells us that this demographic group are sharing, connected and innovative. They value supportive, motivational and team oriented environments as much or more than their pay or overall profits. To have high, ongoing engagement with them they need to see their businesses being led in that way.

From my experience at assisting business to transform I know how critical it is to enable teams to operate at their best in times of change and of high stress. Where businesses are growing or changing quickly only control and corrective action skills combined with people development, collaboration and participative decision making capability will deliver the best results.

In a McKinsey study on leadership effectiveness, people development and the seeking of different perspectives were highlighted as two of the four leadership characteristics most closely correlated to leadership success – the other two were operating with a strong results orientation and effective problem solving.

Has this article made you stop and think about the balance of leadership characteristics within your team? Are they primarily masculine or feminine in nature or a good mix of both?

We would love to hear your thoughts or comments on this topic.


Good information sources:

Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited, ‘Mind the Gaps: the 2015 Deloitte Millennial survey

McKinsey Quarterly January 2015: Decoding Leadership: What really matters


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