You lead like a girl: Defying the patriarchy with feminist leadership

Masculine leadership styles are the norm in the modern workplace. Until a woman uses them.

Male, white, of a certain status, age, and demeanor. Assertive, dominant, ruthless, emotionless, competitive: Culturally, we have been conditioned to understand traditional masculinity as synonymous with strength and leadership.

Leaders who don’t fit that description have fought an uphill battle against patriarchal conventions, but despite their efforts and progress, very few offices or teams in the modern workplace have been truly able to thwart this status quo.

I am a leader who doesn’t look like the status quo.

In fact, I fail every demographic criteria I listed above, but I have adapted (despite my natural tendencies or my desired approach) to embody all of the above characteristics.
I have adapted to advocate for underrepresented voices, for my team, and for myself. I have become a necessary contradiction, using the ends to justify the means, working within and perpetuating a broken system rather than fighting against it. I have a hard time reconciling my ardent feminist ethic with my shrewd business self.

To understand why it’s a contradiction, we have to look at what defines successful business: output, results, return on investment, being top of class.
In order to be perceived as successful by the system, I have to drive provable results and revenue. Our success must be measured in marked, quantifiable results. Creative output can and should be supported by data, but it has to be driven by something subtler, like intuition. Often I am asked to defend the conceptual nature of creative work within our data-obsessed world.

Ironically, masculine business approaches are guided similarly by instinct, intuition, experience: principles that are also difficult to quantify. Yet because men are perceived as possessing innate strength and authority, these qualities are rarely questioned and are often taken for granted as good business practice.

I’m not too naïve to recognize that overthrowing deeply embedded structures through individual actions is challenging and slow-moving work. But we cannot allow that sad truth to leave us hopeless or defeated.

 Here are some ways that I have found to include feminist leadership characteristics in my approach in a strong and productive way.  

PATIENCE: Listen to understand. Adapt to differing communication styles.

“Bluntness” or “directness” often means “get the information out in the rawest form possible.” The communicator is leading a one-way exchange, where how ever they choose to share the information will be the way it comes out, with little to no consideration for the recipient or how the message might be interpreted.

I have learned that the exact same piece of news can and should be shared with different people in completely different ways. You can find some guidance for this reframing in regulated tests (MBTI, TTI/DISC, etc). The core principles of these tests are rooted in learning how people process information and also in attending to what motivates them. Instituting such global communication frameworks at your office can help facilitate more productive conversations.

If your company lacks that framework, become an excellent listener and observer. I constantly remind myself of my motivation in listening: am I listening to respond, to assess, or to understand? We should always first listen to understand. It takes time to do this, and we rarely leave ourselves enough time to process.

Voraciously read about implicit biases and work to check yourself around them (racial, introvert-extrovert, to name a few). I’ve found that people will give you clues about how they like to receive information and how they understand it. Observe those context clues, adapt, and confirm your observations. Don’t make people check your biases for you. It is not their job, it’s yours.

COMMUNITY: Encourage work for the benefit of the collective, not the individual.

Business in the capitalist landscape is inherently competitive. For some individuals, competition is effective for pushing boundaries. For others, it’s stifling and demotivating. Worse, it sacrifices opportunities for collaboration that can forge bonds, develop trust, and result in a better sum product.

I’ve found myself in many scenarios where team members were upset they didn’t receive credit for their work. When team members see the benefit of collaboration, the competitive drive behind individual accreditation lessens. The collective high of the win is the focus, not who did the work. This is only true, though, when everyone contributes to the work fully.

EMPATHY: Embrace emotion—where appropriate.

We have built a patriarchal structure in which emotion is perceived as inherently feminine and weak, and thus rejected as a functional methodology in the workplace. The ability to tap into our emotional intelligence is undervalued as a soft skill (despite rigorous studies around its efficacy).

Like it or not, humans are emotive beings. We have trouble compartmentalizing, and we have bad days. Avoiding emotion is just as dangerous, I’ve found, as allowing it to run rampant.

Try to acknowledge when your emotive side has hold of your rational side, and act accordingly. If you sense someone seems “off” or not “quite themselves,” instead of projecting what might be happening, reach out and check in with that person directly. If a situation gets heated and you find yourself frustrated, take a minute to acknowledge your frustration before proceeding. Decide whether you can proceed professionally before attempting to carry on without a break.

HUMILITY: Remind yourself, then others, of your utter humanness.

There is a false requirement that leaders must always know the correct answer. That they should progress with a sense of poise and assuredness, even when the opposite may be the case.

The truth is, we all have our blind spots, regardless of our pay grade.

I used to be fearful of admitting to my team and my peer group when I had made a mistake. I worried that they’d lose respect for me. And worse, that as a WOC leader, I had to ensure I never made mistakes because to do so would let down and poorly reflect upon my gender and my race.

It got exhausting. It’s hard to perpetually hide your mistakes for fear of misrepresenting millions of people.

So I stopped doing it. When someone points out that I did something wrong, I own up to the mistake and offer course correction and solutions. That pivot is hard, but it’s an important one for leaders to make.

Remember that though you’re entitled to make the mistake, it’s still your job to be a leader. So in that moment, don’t make it about you and your foible. Own up and then move on.

All of this, of course, requires the most important trait of all.

VULNERABILITY: Be your whole self.

Being vulnerable is difficult, particularly when you’ve worked hard to have your male counterparts see you as an equal, which usually means behaving in traditionally masculine ways. But it’s important to cultivate an environment that supports vulnerability for our employees and teams. That environment requires:

Leaders who express vulnerability first (it starts with us);
An even playing field of equal players where egos are checked at the sidelines;
Trust and respect for rules of the game,
A clear procedure for direct communication when fouls are made.

When peers express their vulnerability and the group accepts it, the stigma lessens. This requires time for trust to develop within ourselves and with each other.

When we are vulnerable, we can empathize with someone else even though we’re mad, we can know when to put aside our individual desires for the betterment of the whole, we can slow our pace to meet another’s. True vulnerability is a powerful tool for developing trust. It represents strength and security in who you are and what you bring to your work.

Of course building these traits into our approach is easier said than done. However, we cannot allow the difficulty of fighting patriarchal expectations to prevent us from trying. If we don’t all commit to this fight (and it will be a fight), we will fail to create environments where diversity of thought and approach can flourish.

If we can foster new leadership models that break down this terribly imbalanced and deeply embedded system, bit by bit, word by word, and action by action, we will truly begin to diversify and to broaden the possibilities of what leadership looks like.

Maybe then, when a young, middle-class woman of color demands something with conviction and in the same breath admits a poor decision she made, it won’t be seen as a contradiction of feminine instincts followed by a confirmation of feminine weakness. She will simply be leader doing what she has to do to get her job done.

Creative Leadership Series

Written by Tatiana Mac

Creative leaders need to discuss the leadership aspects of our jobs more. Beyond a few resources (Harvard Business Review, FastCo, 99u, and the occasional conference), we lack resources that guide us on the work beyond creative output (the products) and instead focuses on the creative makers (the people). My hope through this series is to encourage more discourse among our community, through our successes and mistakes, on how to craft the best work through engaged, diverse, and inclusive teams.

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You lead like a girl: Defying the Patriarchy with Feminist Leadership

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