The Essential Qualities of Leadership

Charlotte, patiently waiting for Spring

Over the last decade, I have been watching leaders to see what qualities they possess. I observed 152 essential qualities.

What are these qualities? Read on!

What if I told you the rules for leadership are different for men and women?

A little over a decade ago, I picked up my first book on leadership. I was curious to learn more about how it was that a regular human became a skilled leader. I was a voracious reader and, as I read book after book, I saw the same trends appear over and over: communication, transparency, accountability, integrity.

Some books even discussed the laws of leadership and the rules of leadership. For example: your team is only as effective as the leader. That is a true rule and it is timeless. The laws, rules, and truths appealed to me and I learned them all. But something kept nagging at me. Where were all the women?

Partly I meant that in the leadership boards of the world. Study after study demonstrated that women were underrepresented in every single leadership board in the world. Not one had consistently represented our 49.55% of the global population. So if we were playing by all the same rules, where were the women?

I also partly meant that in the book authoring sense as well. Leadership Books by men so outnumbered the books by women, it was hard to find any significant popular contributions by women. I decided to start asking my friends in leadership who they were reading. Sure enough, they were reading the leadership greats – and not one female author in the bunch.

It began to dawn on me somewhat slowly at this point. Men were writing the rulebooks. Women were following the rules. But the rules written by the men were for the men. As long as women didn’t have own own playbooks, we were going to continue to hit the glass ceiling early and we would never understand how to get through.

Not sure what I mean? Take the well-established quality of assertiveness. In men, we accept and like this quality. It sounds authoritative and we like that. Now apply the quality to a woman. Like, really apply it. When women become assertive, we get labelled bossy or bitchy. So does this mean that we shouldn’t be assertive? Absolutely not. That is still a leadership quality. But for our purposes, we need to append some extra skills to it to make it palatable.

We can add the quality of being unyielding and then just own the judgement of being bitchy. Some do and it works just fine. Others add the quality of charisma. It’s less popular and gets labelled as a “sell out” to the purists, but it is also effective. Don’t get too hung up on what is being glued to the trait of assertiveness. This is no time to get bogged down in the weeds. What is important here isn’t which quality is appended to assertiveness. What is important is that women need to append a quality and men do not. That was important to learn.

My list is not a hard and fast rulebook of qualities and traits. What worked for women in the 50’s has been modified for women today. It seems our list of qualities is a fluid list. If you capture enough of a block of qualities, you level up.

Here is where it gets interesting though. Once I had compiled my list of traits, I started running them against qualities that are considered typically female qualities, like warm and compassion. These qualities in leadership books are almost non-existent, but they are almost quintessential female qualities. Does this mean that to be a good leader, we need to turn into men? How does this net us more female leaders? What about the women who excel in compassion and warmth? Are they stuck?

The good news is that it seems warm, compassionate women leaders have all the same chances at successful leadership as their male counterparts. When I did a search for women leaders, what I found was that as long as they maintained their original female traits while also learning the traditionally male traits, they were fine.

So how did I conduct this highly scientific study? Well to begin, it’s not highly scientific. It’s highly subjective. I started paying attention to the media, in particular around elections. Women candidates get criticized for their style more than they get criticized for their effectiveness. Women candidates are held accountable for their warmth at a much higher rate than their commitment to a vision. Women get judged on our emotional control, our ability to mentor, our time management, our sex appeal, and our charisma in a non-stop theme. We can like it. We can dislike it. It doesn’t matter. The gender-based judgments aren’t stopping.

What does all of this mean for the likes of women who are stepping into the roles of leadership? It means what we already knew: that to be a respected female leader, we will need to be more than, work harder than, do more than. Is it fair? No. But it’s real. That counts.

Word Cloud of words attributed to successful women leaders