Many women struggle to balance being a strong leader with being “likeable” or “feminine.” But digging into the research on how men and women lead differently, and which leadership styles yield results, could help empower women leaders. That’s because a growing body of research shows women possess unique qualities that make them highly effective leaders.

Men and women tend to lead differently

Across businesses of all sizes, men and women tend to have inherently different leadership styles.

Women tend to be transformational leaders: they emphasize collaboration, morale, and motivation, as well as performance and communication. Transformational leaders define success more broadly than just meeting goals; they want their team to become better people.

Men, on the other hand, tend to be transactional leaders: they are goal-oriented and want their team to meet expectations and be accountable. There may be less emphasis on the process for achieving these goals.

  Tip  

Not all women are transformational leaders, and not all men are transactional. Think about the type of leadership style you identify with. This can help you identify strengths and weaknesses as a leader.

The rise of transformational leadership

Transactional leadership has long been the norm, particularly when it comes to running a business, where output and efficiency are key. Women who are transformational leaders might struggle in this context, and many women report feeling pressure to change how they lead. 

But this may not be the best solution, as more people recognize the value of transformational leaders of every gender (noteworthy transformational leaders include Oprah, Nelson Mandela, and Virgin CEO Richard Branson).

While transactional leaders focus on output by setting goals, transformational leaders might notice that increased morale improves output. And that can be a very effective approach: A report from December 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, showed women are better leaders in a crisis, likely because their employees are more engaged. This heightened engagement is more common with transformational leaders.

Recently, Harvard Business Review reviewed the research on the different ways men and women approach leadership. The result: They suggested male leaders emulate women — not the other way around.

The importance of soft skills

Transformational leaders need to be good at more than just business. They must also possess soft skills, or habits based in emotional intelligence (EQ). These skills — which refer to how you work and interact with people — can be vital to running a business. And they may come easier to women.

A recent study looked at 12 soft skills proven to impact business performance, including empathy, self-awareness, mentorship, adaptability, conflict management, inspiration, and teamwork. Women outscored men in 11 of the 12.

Embracing soft skills, rather than suppressing them, can help entrepreneurs navigate big decisions, high-pressure situations, conflict resolution, and constructive criticism.

  Tip  

List times that soft leadership skills came in handy while running your businesses. Then, consider whether actively cultivating these soft skills could give you an advantage going forward.

Of course, there are times when hard skills — talents and abilities that can be measured — are more important. And when it comes to running a business, hard results, like profitability or sales, are just as important (if not more important) than the morale of a team.

However, it’s important to remember that these ideas aren’t mutually exclusive. Good leaders can possess both soft and hard skills: Transformational leaders can still focus on the bottom line, and transactional leaders can work on soft skills to help motivate their team.

Personal leadership style

In the same way skill sets aren’t mutually exclusive, being an effective leader isn’t about having one “right” leadership style. Good leaders often adapt their approach based on the situation at hand and the team they’re working with.

Studies show that women may have an easier time with this kind of adaptability.

To figure out whether you need to adapt your leadership style, start by identifying your strengths and weaknesses. Then, create a list of leadership tactics that work best with your team and business model. Note where your strengths and weaknesses intersect with effective leadership tactics. 

This exercise can help you develop a signature approach to leadership. What combination of skills do you possess that make you the most effective leader?

  Tip  

After you’ve noted which of your skills tend to be the most effective, research different leadership styles to see if you naturally identify with any of them. This can help you develop your skills and identify similar leaders to look to as examples.

While it’s impossible to talk about leadership in the context of gender alone, it’s also clear that more people are seeing value in the way women tend to lead. Take time to identify how and when you are most effective, then cultivate your own leadership style based on those traits.

Sources: Gender Intelligence (PDF), KPMG (PDF), Harvard Business Review, Korn Ferry, Master Class

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