McKinsey makes the case for women at the top

This is a very informative video summarizing McKinsey’s research on the bottom line impact of women in senior leadership.  I appreciate McKinsey’s initial research question: Does it actually matter to have women at the top?  Do women leaders make a difference to organizational effectiveness?  Their findings: yes. Women Matter | McKinsey & Company

The Power of Vulnerability

As an advocate for the underserved in her community, Gloria is recognized as a true leader. She’s smart, resourceful and has a commanding presence. She is unafraid to challenge injustice wherever she sees it, standing up to any person or process that she feels is harming others. Because of her courage, others have come to rely on her to take the difficult stands that they themselves are afraid to take. Tough and courageous, Gloria is a shining example of the grit-based leadership style at its best.

And yet…

Gloria was starting to experience the limitations of her style. When she was forceful, the world often responded to her with force, which took its toll on her. The more others relied on her courage, the more she enabled them to avoid their own. After years of experiencing the gifts of grit, Gloria started to experience the perils of over investing that style.  She came to me for coaching, and we worked to help her integrate more grace into her native grit style.

Now, it is often when she calls upon her ‘grace’ side that Gloria is most powerful as a leader. I recently observed her in a community forum, where the discussion was heating up, yet going nowhere. I could see people giving her ‘the look,’ their silent visual request for her to challenge what was happening. And, as she so often does, she stepped up. But this time, her challenge came in the form of vulnerability. Rather than calling people out, Gloria just stood up and quietly told her own truth. “As the conversation is going on,” she said, “I am finding myself more and more exhausted.” In that instant of speaking from the heart, Gloria changed the room. Simply by describing her own personal experience, she seemed to give voice to that of the whole group, and people visibly relaxed in recognition.  Soon thereafter, someone spoke up and said, “That’s how I feel, too. I don’t think this is getting us where we want to go. Let’s change the focus and the structure of the conversation.” From that moment on, the group adjusted into a much more productive mode.

For Gloria, it was a much greater risk to be vulnerable than to challenge others; it was a much more personal move. And yet, from where I sat, it was the most potent and effective action she could have taken. Had she stood up and done her normal ‘grit thing,’ she probably would have just amped up the unproductive intensity in the room. But by honestly reporting on her own internal experience, she caused a profoundly effective shift.

When we think about leadership, we tend to think about its more assertive and forceful aspects. But vulnerability has every bit as much power as force to transform. Maybe more.

What about you?

How do you related to the concept of vulnerability as a form of power?  Do you embrace it?  Resist it?  Both?
How do you think others relate to your vulnerability?  What impact does that have on your willingness to make yourself vulnerable to others – especially when you are leading or influencing others?
Can you think of a recent or important situation in which being forceful worked against your effectiveness?
What might a more vulnerable response have looked like in that situation?
Where might you want to be more vulnerable in your work life or personal life?  What steps can you take to do that?


The Four Pillars of True Power

Last year, a company hired me to present “Leading With Grit & Grace” to its senior women executives. When the sponsor asked me to describe the content of the presentation, I said, “It’s about how women can wield their power and influence more effectively.”  Their response?  “Whatever you do, don’t mention the word power in your presentation!

This client was giving voice to a common discomfort with the notion of power in our culture.  Women seem especially wary of it, as if power is something that we shouldn’t claim or own. I think the reason we resist owning – or even talking about – power is because of how we define it. Most of us think of power as an oppressive and constraining force, a tool of domination. And unfortunately, our past and present are riddled with examples of power used in this way.  So these are legitimate concerns.

But because we resist this ‘brute force’ aspect of power, we tend to send the whole topic underground, burying with it all of power’s positive potential.  As we dissociate from the more coercive aspects of power, we also disown our ability to unite and mobilize others for productive and compassionate ends. This positive, connective force is what Joe Weston, author of Respectful Confrontation, calls “true power.” Weston contends that true power is supported by four pillars of internal capacity: grounding, strength, focus, and flexibility.

Pillar 1: Grounding. Our personal power is not unlike electrical current. Ground it, and it’s productive and safe. But when ungrounded, it has the potential to do real harm, so true power has to begin there. It’s the establishment of a strong physical, spiritual, mental and emotional foundation from which to encounter life.  Grounding keeps us rooted in our bodies, beliefs and principles, and thus stable in the face of challenge.  According to Weston, “Grounding…leads to an unwavering self-confidence and conviction in what you do and believe.”

Pillar 2: Focus. According to Weston, there are two aspects to focus: “finding stillness in the chaos” and “giving direction to one’s efforts.”  Focus brings a calm, clear quality to your power.  It enables you to sort through all that’s happening in and around you, and make a clear choice about what to bring forward.  Focus concentrates your energy, enabling you to act and speak with intent and precision.  To focus is to take a definite shape, something that can be uncomfortable for women.  To help us move into that discomfort, we need the next pillar: strength.

Pillar 3: Strength. This is the aspect we usually associate with power, and without the other pillars, it can turn into the kind of brute force that we rightly resist. Here’s how Joe Weston describes strength: “The innate force of strength is expressed in two ways.  The first is the courage to move out of your safe space and into the unknown, and the second is the physical force to accomplish your goals.” Strength is often a real skill of grit-based leaders.  But when strength is not accompanied by grounding or flexibility, it can turn a woman from bold to bitchy.

Pillar 4: Flexibility. Weston believes that flexibility is the most elusive, challenging, yet potent of all the pillars.  He sums it up in a Taoist saying: “In a heavy monsoon, the mighty oak will snap like a twig, but the blade of grass will survive.”  Flexibility is the key to versatility, creativity and compassion.  This is often a strong pillar for grace-based leaders, yet they will tell you that flexibility without the support of other pillars can result in weakness.  A leader who is grounded, clear and strong – while also able to adapt and adjust – is a force to be reckoned with.

What about you?

Each of these four pillars is essential to ‘true power,’ but the real potential lies in achieving balance in all four.  Which of these pillars are most developed in you?  What do those strengths make possible for you and others?  What happens when you overuse those pillars to the neglect of the others?

Which of these pillars is least developed in you?  What impact does that have in your ability to express ‘true power?’  How will strengthening that pillar help you to accomplish something that really matters to you?

What one or two steps can you take right now to get started?



To find out more about Joe Weston’s work, go to


Mountain or Spear? The difference between assertiveness and aggression

“The minute I express my opinion clearly, I get labeled as aggressive.”  This may be the most recurrent refrain I hear from the women leaders I coach.  They report that if they hold back or are soft-spoken, they get run over in conversations.  Yet if they come forward with strength, they get tattooed with what I call the “Scarlet B:” the reputation as a bitch (excuse the French).

There’s no doubt that organizations tolerate more forcefulness from men than from women, so women often have to operate in a much narrower stylistic swath.  At the same time, something has nagged at me about these clients’  stories.  In each of their organizations, I can name other women leaders who are successful and influential who have escaped the “aggressive” label.  And many of the women that I’ve coached do, indeed, have quite a sharp edge.  So while I fully acknowledge that organizations are often intolerant of strength in women, I don’t believe that it’s impossible for a woman to be both strong and avoid the Scarlet B tattoo.

The issue is not whether you’re coming across with strength – it’s rather the kind of strength you’re coming across with. There is an important distinction between assertiveness and aggression.  The word “assertive” has its roots in the Latin word for “to join,”  while “aggressive” has its roots in the Latin word for “to attack.”  Assertion stands its ground, like a mountain or tree.  It has a full and present quality that is based on your intention to make real contact with yourself and others.  Aggressiveness, on the other hand, has a forward-leaning, ‘coming at’ quality, and often reflects a loss of interrelatedness.  In women, there can be a sharpness or shrillness to the voice that often belies an underlying energy of anger, frustration, powerlessness or fear.  If left unmanaged or ungrounded, those emotions can give our communication a spear-like quality.

Unfortunately, because organizations tolerate more spears from men than from women, women need to take extra care that their communications are balanced and effective.  The bad news is that women carry an extra burden to be skillful in their communication.  But the good news is that that forces us into a style that research has proven to be most effective for leaders in general, regardless of gender.

What about you?

Recall an interaction in which someone told you that you came across as aggressive or “too strong.”   What were the circumstances surrounding that interaction?

What message were you trying to get across?  What qualities did your communication have?  (If you were watching yourself on videotape in that interaction, what do you think you would have observed about yourself?)

Now recall the emotions you were feeling in that interaction.  What were they?  Defensive, scared, angry…?  Were you aware of them at the time?  How did those emotions shape what you said and how you said it? Were there spear-like qualities to it?

Where was your attention when you were speaking?  Was it more on connecting to yourself and the other person?  Or was it more on getting your point across or being heard?

Now imagine yourself as a mountain, or as some other image that is both solid in itself and open to its surroundings.   How would that mountain (or other image that works for you) communicate that same message you were trying to convey?

What’s different about how the mountain would express itself from how you actually communicated in the situation?

What’s your sense of how others would perceive the two messages with respect to assertiveness vs. aggression?

What new awareness or understanding do you have as a result of this exercise?  What actions might you take as a result of these insights?



Modeling ourselves after men continues not to work

Apparently, I grew up in Corporate America.  I was one of two children. My older brother received most of the parenting – he got much more guidance than I did on who to be and how to succeed. He received much more corrective feedback (for better and worse) than I did. I think my parents saw him as having greater potential than I and thus invested more heavily in him. Naturally, I wanted to be successful in my parents’ eyes. So I adopted the only guidance available – that which they gave my brother. I became all the things they wanted him to be: driven, achievement-oriented, competitive, sports-oriented and vocal.

Big mistake.  An old family friend once confided in me.  “Leslie, your parents always said that you weren’t the girl they wished you’d become. They always thought you were too tough and forthright.”  But they had neglected to give me any input on how to succeed in their eyes as a girl.  I had given up a lot of myself (maybe the best of myself) to conform to a male image of success, and it backfired.  A long, hard slog to nowhere. Sound familiar?

The dynamic that existed in my family continues to exist in organizations today. In the absence of skilled and explicit feedback, women still model their behavior after men in order to succeed.  And it continues to backfire: not because women can’t do male behavior, but because it’s not what organizations want or expect from women.  Like it or not.

One of the current truisms in corporate life is that women are paid less than men because they don’t negotiate as well as men.  So the follow-on conclusion is that women need to negotiate more aggressively for promotions and pay increases, because that’s what works (for men).

God bless research. Catalyst, one of the premier research organizations on women in the workplace, has found that, in fact, women DO ask and negotiate for what they want – and that it has little positive effect on their careers.  In their recent book, The Myth of the Ideal Worker: Does Doing All the Right Things Really Get Women Ahead? Catalyst discovered that men tend to be rewarded for perceived potential (just as my brother – and probably your brother – was). So men’s career success comes from changing organizations often and negotiating hard at each move. What seems to get women ahead is proven performance. So the key to women’s success (using promotion and pay as metrics) seems to be staying with an employer, accumulating achievements, and letting those achievements be known.  Proactive negotiation had very little positive impact on women’s success, just as the broadcasting of achievements had little impact on men’s success.

Myth by busted myth, we continue to learn that women’s path to success is different from men’s.  We can rail against it or we can embrace it.  Does it make me mad that the rules are different for men and women?  Yes.  Do I fear that ‘different’ expectations can too easily equate to lower expectations?  Yes.  But I think there is also tremendous hope in these findings.  They invite women to shed a male model of success and claim their own path.  At the same time, these findings also invite organizations to examine their different ways of relating to men and women and to root out conscious and unconscious inequities.

Challenge and Support: The Grit and Grace of People Development

Most leaders would agree that one of their main tasks is to develop their people.  Yet many would also agree that a) they don’t do enough of it and b) they don’t feel confident that they do it well.  As a result, there’s often an unfortunate lack of attention paid to this critical aspect of leadership.

The results? Leaders find themselves stuck in the ‘doing trap.’  Their people can’t seem to get the job done without them, so they can’t extract themselves from the tasks of day- to-day delivery.  But this is a vicious cycle – as the leader stays involved in task execution, her people don’t grow, which then prevents her from letting go of her involvement in the task. The leader is so busy ‘doing’ that she can’t find time to attend to strategy, process, people and systems – the very things that could elevate her team’s performance to the next level.

The only way out of the ‘doing trap’ is for a leader to actively attend to the growth and development of her staff.  Unfortunately, most leaders have not been taught how to think about how to grow people, much less how to do it.

Robert Kegan, a developmental psychologist and researcher at Harvard, has discovered that people grow with a combination of two essential ingredients: challenge and support. It’s a simple but profound construct.  Challenge is the ‘grit’ side of the equation.  Challenge – in the forms of corrective feedback, a stretch assignment, an increase in responsibility, a new topic area – is what causes us to change. Just like lifting weights strengthens us by applying productive stress to our muscles, so an appropriate challenge can strengthen our performance at work.

Because challenge is a ‘grit’ action, grit-based leaders tend to be naturals at providing it.  But too much challenge can throw someone into a state of panic, where unproductive fear takes over and learning stops.  It’s like asking someone to go from bench-pressing 50 lbs. to 150 lbs. in one session.  Failure and a setback in confidence are the likely results.

So challenge must be balanced with support, which is the ‘grace’ side of the equation. Support comes in many forms: a doable stretch, positive feedback, delegation with built-in safety nets, mentoring and instruction, clear guidelines, etc.  It provides enough safety for the employee to stay out of the panic zone and inhabit a more productive ‘stretch’ zone that maximizes learning.

Grace-based leaders have a natural tendency to provide support.  But beware!  Too much support can make life so comfortable for employees that they don’t grow.  This is as serious a leadership error as inflicting too much challenge; it can just as easily stop development in its tracks.

The magic lies in the blend. But how do you know whether you’ve got the ‘right’ blend of challenge and support? The answer lies in the result.  Pay attention to what mixture seems to result in the best quality work and strongest motivation in each person.  Some employees will light up and produce like crazy like in the face of a challenge.  Others will wilt.  For some, the smallest praise will spur them to new heights, while others will see praise as the ‘fluffy stuff’ that comes before the ‘real’ feedback.

Here’s the catch.  It’s impossible to bring this balance of challenge and support to your employees if you haven’t developed a good balance of grit and grace within yourself.  This is perhaps the most challenging aspect of developing others – that it requires us to first develop in ourselves the versatility and range to bring each employee exactly what he or she needs in order to grow.

What about you?

Are you naturally more grit-based or grace-based?

How does that preference impact the way you develop your people?  Do you tend to grow your people more with challenge or support?

With whom does that seem to work?  With whom are you missing the mark?

Think of one person for whom your balance of challenge and support doesn’t seem to be the best fit.  Identify which aspect you think they need more of from you.  Shift your approach in that direction and see what happens.  And let us know!



Is the conversation about ‘male’ and ‘female’ leadership still useful?

I recently read an article in the Washington Post called “What Men Can Learn From Women About Leadership.”  Its central premise is that male leaders could stand to learn a thing or two from their female counterparts.  While this premise seems true to me, I’m wondering how useful it is.

Here’s the problem I keep encountering.  Once we put issues of leadership style into the gender frame, the conversation goes awry.  The conversation about male and female leadership might be productive if we knew how to have it in a productive way. But from what I can tell, focusing on the differences between male and female leadership behavior – even if those differences are statistically borne out – seems to have more downsides than up.  First, it feeds an ‘us-vs.-them’ mindset that diverts us from more pressing questions of contemporary leadership.  In addition, as gender roles and expectations evolve, more and more women are operating in a stereotypically ‘male’ fashion. Likewise, more men are leading with styles that are stereotypically ‘female.’  Thus, theoretical generalizations about gender quickly collapse under practical scrutiny. Last, at least among the leaders I coach, neither gender particularly aspires to become more like the other.  So why keep making the argument that male leaders should learn from women if it does not motivate them to do so?

The quest for greater effectiveness is what compels my clients to do the hard work of personal change. I have helped many hard-driving, demanding leaders of both genders to integrate more collaboration and compassion into their leadership style. They didn’t do this work because they aspired to be more like women; they did it to become more effective.  I have also helped many collaborative, compassionate men and women to lead more firmly and assertively. They, too, were motivated not by the desire to adopt a more ‘male’ style, but by the promise of more  leadership potency.

In other words, for many leaders, greater effectiveness lies not in becoming more like a man or woman, but rather in achieving a better balance between assertiveness and receptivity. I find that focusing on the qualities themselves, vs. on the gender of who supposedly brings those qualities, is a more accurate and useful frame for the developmental work that my clients are doing.

As long as we remain fixated on ‘men do X’ and ‘women do Y,’  we’ll continue to be be distracted from the very issue that the male/female conversation is intended to surface: How do leaders skillfully balance the forces of achievement and relatedness, so that our organizations are healthier, our global society is more just, and our planet survives?