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This Is Why You Need Balance To Be An Effective Leader

by Thuy Sindell, PhD. and Milo Sindell, MS.
Published on August 11, 2016

The conversation on gender and leadership centers on the same advice. Women in leadership need to be less bossy and more confident, and men need to be more understanding. It’s been said over and over again, and yet, the balance between men and women in leadership isn’t getting any better.

While women make up 53 percent of entry-level employees, a 2015 analysis published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found they account for just 24 percent of senior vice presidents and 19 percent of c-suite executives.

But research conducted by our company, Skyline Group International, Inc., tells a different story. Leadership isn’t about male or female — it’s about balance. Here’s a closer look at what we found and what it means for leaders:

Leadership is on spectrum.

When we think about leadership and gender, we associate certain traits with men and women. Women in leadership positions are great listeners, they’re compassionate, and they’re collaborative. On the other hand, men in leadership roles are competitive, assertive, and decisive.

In reality, one gender doesn’t own certain leadership skills — there’s a masculine and feminine way of performing each skill. According to our research, both men and women agreed that there is a significant and recognizable gender continuum on 27 of the 28 competencies included in the study.

In other words, both men and women possess the skills for leadership, they just manifest in different ways. For example, both men and women have listening skills, but they listen differently. Women tend to listen to understand what the speaker is feeling, while men listen to understand what the speaker is saying.

And while men and women lead in different ways, one approach isn’t necessarily better than the other. In our survey, participants rated more than 70 percent of leadership competencies, both masculine and feminine expressions, as equally effective.

Effectiveness depends on context and audience.

But just because masculine and feminine expressions are seen as equally effective, doesn’t mean that leaders can always act in a way that feels natural. Being an effective leader all comes down to context.

The perception of leadership effectiveness depends on who you are working with and the needs of the situation. All leaders need balance. You need to adapt your behaviors based on your audience, your approach and your gender, simultaneously. You need to develop and use both the masculine and feminine expressions of a competency, depending on what is needed, instead of relying on one default set of behaviors.

Balance isn’t as easy as it sounds. While men have been coached to adopt the qualities of women in leadership positions, the same hasn’t been done for women. Why not? Well, it’s a little tricky.

Women are tougher on women.

One of the major reasons balance is particularly difficult for women is because they tend to be judged harshly when the adopt masculine behaviors, especially by other women.

Our research found a significantly lower perception of effectiveness when women express the masculine behavior in 57 percent of the 28 leadership competencies studied. In comparison, men were perceived significantly poorer when utilizing the feminine approach in just 39 percent of competencies.

What’s more, for 43 percent of the competencies where women express the masculine version of the trait, only women rated other women as less effective.

So, when should women avoid masculine expressions of leadership traits? In general, women were viewed negatively when they take an assertive and directive approach to leadership. When women in leadership adhere strictly to the rules, they are perceived poorly by other women.

In fact, the more detailed, directive, and structured women are, the more negatively other women view them. In these situations, women should embrace the feminine side of these skills. That means listening and collaborating with employees to include them in decisions and find new ways of doing things.

All leaders need balance.

Gender aside, all leaders need to find a balance between masculine and feminine leadership competencies. Pay attention to your team and what they need. One day they may need a steady guiding hand, and the next they may need a listening ear and shoulder to cry on. Work on developing both masculine and feminine skills so you can meet their needs, no matter the situation.

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