As women, we face unique challenges as leaders, whether we work in the corporate world or as business owners. There seems to be a large chasm between female leaders who too easily sacrifice authority, and iron-fisted women who never budge once their minds are made up.
Unfortunately, neither approach is effective in a long-term leadership position.
There are many aspects of leadership, but the core question is this: as strong and capable women, how can we lead without being labeled bossy, b*tchy, or worse?
It’s easy to play the game and pander to what others expect us to be in the workplace. However, when strong leadership becomes synonymous with negative labels like “controlling” and “demanding,” the female leader has not only lost her power, but often her respect as well.
Early in my career, I observed a much younger manager effectively lead her older subordinates during a conflict. In trying to meet a shipping deadline, it was all hands on deck, but one team member was questioning every decision. This young manager very kindly but firmly stated, “I am happy to discuss the reasons why with you later, but at this moment we need your help without question to get this out the door.” I was both impressed by the balanced approach and intrigued by how her leadership style struck the balance between confident, executive and collaborative leader.
I turned to Professional Mentor and Career Acceleration Coach at Illustra Consulting Sarah Hathorn for advice about women who want to lead without losing themselves in the process.
“Women who by lead by mimicking men reveal a lack of professional identity,” said Hathorn. “Professional confidence is not gender-based; it’s all about authenticity and developing the qualities that resonate with who you are.” To find their own authentic style, leaders need realistic assessments — ones that highlight where they need to develop a more professional presence.
If you’re struggling to find your authentic style, follow these three steps:
1. First, look to leaders you admire.
Observe their traits, how they interact within a team and work under pressure. It may be worthwhile to pursue mentorship so you can work together with your leadership development in mind.
2. Second, stop putting yourself first.
Leadership is an exercise in service, and as John Quincy Adams said, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” It’s a tricky balance because as a figure of authority, you must often be the deciding voice on things. Instead of focusing on your authority, Hathorn recommends starting from a place of service. For women who “lead as a coach by giving support, training, encouragement, mentorship and resources, employees will become loyal followers whom you can lead to victory.” Service involves putting your own advancement and ego aside to focus on the needs of the team and business.
3. Third, find and refine the balance between personal and professional.
Hathorn recommends getting to know your team, but setting clear boundaries and expectations. “When you’re working, it’s important to perform to get results; after work, time is for relaxation and personal relationships.” Professional behavior and authenticity have to go hand in hand — while you may be open about your personal life or struggles with friends, the same sharing can negatively impact your leadership at the office. Oftentimes a casual and collaborative leadership approach, which women gravitate towards, can easily be sabotaged by overly personal behavior or even things like apparel.
Embodying your authentic leadership style is a process, but it sends a powerful statement and commands respect. In the end, it’s not about conformity or mimicry, but looking within yourself to find the style that resonates with you — and wearing it, inside and out, with confidence.
Besides, being labeled “bossy” is still better than being “fake.”
Kelly Azevedo is the founder of She’s Got Systems, a custom coaching program that leads clients to get support, documenting and dominating in their fields. She has worked in startup, successful six-figure and million-dollar online businesses, helping owners create the systems to serve their needs.