Authentic Leadership

By:Kim DeCoste Issue: Collaborative Women Section:Jewel Of Collaboration authentic-leadership

Quite to my surprise as I sit to write about Women and Leadership, I am not inclined to address the point as I would have expected. Nor as I would have 20 years ago. After discussions, inquiry, email exchanges, Facebook postings and research, I find the issue much less polarizing now than it once was. Of the most recent work I have found about leadership success, whether in the context of business, community, politics, global issues or most other major categories; it seems the discussion about what is different between men and women is less present than I expected.

I believe this is a victory for us all. Before I go farther, please note that I am not suggesting that there are not areas in which women need to still be equally recognized for work or more fairly compensated. Of course I believe that we need more women in leadership roles as they become available. This is already happening, though more slowly than some would like, perhaps.


What I detect in speaking with and reading the works of men and women on the subject of leadership, is that it is rapidly becoming less of an issue. Leadership in general is changing and women, through their effort and examples, are informing the process. We do see that they are having a greater impact. So much so that we do not notice that it is happening but rather take for granted that it is the natural evolution of things.

Leadership in general is changing and women - through their effort and examples - are informing the process.

This is not the case in equal degrees in every segment nor is it the same around the world. The disparity in leadership opportunities in some parts of the world is endemic and deeply culturally-rooted. It would be inappropriate to attempt to address those issues in the context of a broad, fairly high level look at leadership. But even in cultures where women have not had access to opportunities to the same extent their brothers and fathers have, we see myriad of examples changing that. In many cases these changes are being driven by female leadership. But they are also a function of the increasing transparency of most societies now due to world communications. People are tweeting, posting, sharing, friending and communicating in ways like never before. All people are empowered by the prospects of what they see – near and far. For some it motivates them to step up and affect change around the world and for some, it draws focus to their own back yards, schools and communities. This revival of interest in change for all people is not gender driven, but is empowered by many women guiding and supporting the willingness to change.

I reached out to two people in particular for this article and found each had a unique perspective. Debra Benton is a CEO coach, author and speaker. Debra focuses on CEO traits and business leadership in her work. Benton sees the trends in leadership that make good business people into strong leaders and notes that women are collaborative, team-oriented and consensus-driven more than men in many cases. Many women are also very good at building the kinds of relationships that inspire people who are subordinate to want to work harder for them. She also concedes, however, that there are many women who are successful because they happen to be in industries that are doing well, such as healthcare. "Their success is a function of where they are, not just who they are." said Benton.

But she does offer several points worth noting: 1) Women tend to be very resilient. Women handle pain and often bounce back more quickly than men. They are also more accustomed to handling rejection. 2) Women tend to try harder, because they have always had to prove themselves. In tough times, women often rise to the occasion better. 3) Women tend to be more intuitive and are excellent collaborators. Most women are organized and are very good multi-taskers because they often have to juggle multiple roles.


Aside from these points which are well-documented and commonly accepted, there is little else to which she gives credence as far as differences. The most fascinating point that Benton brought up was in fact not gender related at all. She said that in order for one to become a leader in business, she or he must either be pulled up (from the top) or pushed up (from below). In either case, the individual must have done good work, be respected and trusted and be well regarded, if not liked. When I asked about the way gender plays into this, Benton said that gender is not a factor. In fact, it is not something she concentrates on at all. The best leaders, she said, are those who have the best “stereotypical” traits from both sides. They are collaborative, inspirational and relationship oriented; and they are risk takers who can be decisive. Performance is what matters, not gender.

I also spoke with Beth Brown, CEO of Professional Resource Enhancement. Beth’s company focuses on leadership training and is currently in the process of developing leadership training for women. From Brown’s perspective, the challenge women face is not actually leading, but finding the right leadership style in those first opportunities they are given to lead. As with most people when first asked to assume a lead role, women will tend to default to leadership styles they have experienced and more often than not, that would be a male approach.

Brown writes, “Leadership is built on a foundation of relationships and that plays to a woman’s inherent strength. By mimicking what she has seen from men, a woman is in danger of sacrificing the core values of relationships. Simply put, women in leadership roles need to embrace their gender and the inherent strengths that accompany them instead of trying to mimic the leadership styles of men.” It is this approach that seemed to resonate with others that I spoke with. Good leadership, most said, was gender neutral. The best leaders, she said, are those who have the best "stereotypical" traits from both sides. They are collaborative, inspirational and relationship oriented; and they are risk takers who can be cecisive. Performance is what matters, not gender.

A former colleague, Lori Patik, wrote, “I don't think there is anything that distinguishes one [gender] from the other. Rather there are probably some general gender characteristics that would make reaction/productivity/teamwork outcomes different. The more gender-independent abilities, the better set-up for success.” She and others wrote about the fact women leaders do seem to engage teams differently, building consensus and involving the whole team more than some men, but even this, they concede seems to be changing. Indeed, I looked at several successful women leaders. One that stands out is Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo. Ms. Nooyi has been successful at Pepsi and stands out in the business community, in my mind, because of her open approach, clear success and willingness to discuss leadership. She feels strongly that it is the obligation of women in leadership roles to pull up others beneath them so that a succession can be created. Leading by example, it seems, is her primary directive and she speaks clearly on the subject of leadership with no indication that a gender difference exists.

In an online article by ASTD (American Society for Training & Development), Ms. Nooyi spoke of the necessary traits for leadership which are universally applicable and pertain equally to different types of leadership – from business to political to community leadership. She highlights five skills that are hallmarks of effective leadership. 1. Competence. You must be an expert in your function or area of expertise. You will become known for that.

2. Take a Stand. You must be known for your courage and confidence to act and say what you believe is right.

3. Communication Skills. Communication skills are critical. You can never over-invest in them.

4. Coaching. Surround yourself with good mentors. Listen. Learn. Your mentor is a major force.

5. Your Moral Compass. Have the strength and courage to do what’s morally right, not what’s expedient. Your moral compass must be your true north.

These skills are ones that we can all develop if we want to strengthen our leadership skills regardless of gender.

The research is clear, there are more women in leadership roles but there is still a huge gap on most companies’ organizational charts as the gender of senior leadership is tracked. According to Business Week’s most recent “Best Companies for Leadership”, women head up fewer than 3% of the Fortune 1,000. Moving down the organizational chart a bit, it becomes better for women in the ranks of middle management.

Further research corroborates what was said earlier about gender neutrality, saying that, “The outstanding women used a better blend of what we think of as traditional masculine styles -- being directive, authoritative, and leading by example and as well as feminine ones. They also knew when to be more nurturing, inclusive, and collaborative.” This blending of skills is changing the way other leaders approach their roles. Men are adopting these approaches more and the way in which we judge leadership is being changed by the women who are leading. Authentic leadership is driven by successful teams and solid performance.


Finally, we should comment on the countless numbers of unknown women who will never be famous but who lead in their families and communities quietly. Many women who do not covet recognition do work that goes widely unnoticed except by the people in their immediate circles. Their devotion to family and local matters is the engine that drives many communities. Hundreds of volunteer hours, thousands of tiny projects and tasks that are the everyday work of women and for which they will never be recognized. This has been the story of women for generations and we would be doing a disservice if we only focused on women of acclaim and high visibility.

I am reading a book now by Cokie Roberts called Founding Mothers. The closing sentence of her introduction resonated as I was looking back through it recently. The women she focuses on are the wives and mothers of the men who founded the United States. Their stories of leadership are hard to believe as they carried on with their lives through the birth of the country. But Roberts writes something that still applies to so many women. “I come to the conclusion that there’s nothing unique about them. They did – with great hardship, courage, pluck, prayerfulness, sadness, joy, energy and humor – what women do. They put one foot in front of the other in remarkable circumstances. They carried on.” Simple put, women in leadership roles need to embrace their gender and the inherent strengths that accompany them instead of trying to mimic the leadership styles of men. - Beth Brown

That is the truth of women in general and women who lead. In the grand scheme of things, we see leaders of both genders learning from one another. Leadership will evolve as people do, and those who rise to the top will be those who find the best in those around them and elicit a passion to improve every day. Lance Secretan said, “Leadership is not so much about technique and methods as it is about opening the heart. Leadership is about inspiration—of oneself and of others. Great leadership is about human experiences, not processes. Leadership is not a formula or a program, it is a human activity that comes from the heart and considers the hearts of others. It is an attitude, not a routine.”

Kim DeCoste is the President of DeCoste & Associates, a strategic career management and coaching firm specializing in career transition ( Kim is also actively involved in STEM initiatives, public K-12 education and clean technology expansion through the South Metro Denver Chamber and Cleantech Open (