Thinking Outside the Gender Box
by Rebecca Shambaugh

According to popular ideas about gender, men and women are not just different - they actually come from separate planets. Conventional wisdom suggests that when it comes to leadership, men want results and take action, while women favor relationships and a collaborative decision process. But is it this simple? Are we doing ourselves any favors by keeping styles in gender boxes?

My own experience in working with corporate executives suggests that the time is ripe to reframe our thinking about gender styles and leadership. In fact, people are weary of being in boxes, and many of us are no longer tied to gender-specific behaviors. So how can we reframe this age - old problem?

A Call to Action

This article is a call to action for today's leaders to engage their innate strengths - both masculine and feminine - to increase their leadership effectiveness, agility and presence. I invite you to consider ways in which you can integrate gender styles to expand the scope and strength of your talents, but I also warn you: the answers will not be found by looking in the rear view mirror. It is time to look forward. As Albert Einstein said, "No problem can be solved by the same consciousness that created it."

As an executive coach and organizational strategist, I know plenty of individuals who already integrate their leadership styles. I work with men who exhibit intuitive collaborative skills, and women leaders who are bottom-line driven. They do not give up the traits that are associated with their gender - instead, they call on a variety of strengths to get the job done. Some of these are attributed to a masculine style, others appear to be feminine - but today's leaders do not let these limitations define them. They focus on the job, not the gender. Need to change the department's direction quickly, and with little overhead? Effective leaders use speed and efficiency, whether they are women or men. Have an internal issue that demands better communication and different ways to solve a problem? Today's leaders take the time needed to build strong teams, listen and inspire new and diverse ideas while keeping employees informed. All of these traits inspire productivity, and keep positive action going.

Please note that I do not discount the idea of differences, nor do I say that men and women are similar. The issue is not about whether we are the same or different - I don't believe that is a conversation that will get us anywhere. What will move us forward into these times of great change is the realization that we have a wide range of capabilities that can be engaged whenever we choose to.

Carly Fiorina, CEO of the Hewlett-Packard Development Company, gave as part of a recent address to the Simmons School of Management 25th Annual Conference. "When you come right down to it, there is no male or female way to lead in the 21st century," she said. "Leadership in any field isn't like tennis - there isn't a men's ladder and a ladies' ladder." As Fiorina illustrated, business is a series of problems that need to be solved, requiring brain power to look at things proactively, to understand organizational and human behavior and to find trusted solutions that have been used in the past or completely new ones. This level of ability is complex, and requires a wide range of behaviors and decisions. It is not gender specific.

Fiorina also spoke to the bottom-line need to use the best of both genders. "The most basic truth facing companies in today's economy are organizations that operate on a true meritocracy, the companies that recognize talent - regardless of the package it comes in," she said. "These are the organizations that ultimately lead and win in the marketplace."

Virginia O'Brien, author of Success on Your Own Terms, agrees. "The best model of leadership integrates both masculine and feminine approaches," she says. "A tilt too far in either direction can cause chaos."

There is evidence that other leaders are coming to same conclusion. Executives of 25 corporations, universities, and government organizations gathered in Phoenix, Arizona in April of 2003 to spend two days learning how to create inclusive workplace environments. The symposium was organized by the Scottsdale National Gender Institute with additional sponsorship from Eastman Kodak Company and Medtronic.

According to Leslie Jenness, Executive Director of The Scottsdale National Gender Institute, "If businesses do not take immediate action around gender issues of communication, inclusion, retention, and promotion, then as the economy turns around they will experience employees leaving in droves to find a workplace where they are more valued."

Combining gender traits is also highlighted in the best selling book, Good to Great. Author Jim Collins spent fifteen years researching what makes companies successful. One common thread he identified is leadership that integrates feminine and masculine traits. Collins says that successful CEOs, both male and female, emulate masculine and feminine styles that can translate to sheer determination for driving performance, while at the same time expressing humility and compassion for others.

There are a number of CEOs who already exemplify this. Fiorina is described as being provocative, goal-oriented, and intensely competitive - yet those who know her also report that she is inclusive and collaborative. Herb Kelleher, Chairman of the Board of Southwest Airlines, is a master at being a creative communicator and developing an inclusive culture. He is also known as a fierce warrior when it comes to maintaining the competitive edge. Gary McCullen, CEO of Cox Communications, was brought in at a time when the organization was in disarray. He assembled the right people, and this group of diverse talents brought about a positive turn. McCullen indicated that their success had nothing to do with gender differences, but rather how they integrated masculine and feminine traits.

Our Leadership Defines our Style

I work with executives from all over the world. I help them develop leadership strategies from personal effectiveness to large-scale organizational change. Whether coaching an individual or brainstorming with a room full of managers, I am asked over and over again how to get the best outcomes. Should they stick to a results-driven method, they wonder, or soften their approach and become more nurturing? The answer, which is easy, is yes!

I tell leaders that they can do both. In fact, they MUST do both. Our gender does not define our style. Our leadership defines our style.

Another way of looking at this is to question why we limit ourselves to a portion of leadership strengths when we can have them all. When we make important business decisions, we never scratch 50% of our options off the list before we sit down to resolve the issue - so why ignore half of our behavior choices? This is essentially what we do when we partition-off styles that are attributed to the "other" gender. Men who do not call on their innate ability to nurture are loosing a valuable management tool. Women who do not engage their natural talents as tough negotiators may miss out on profitable opportunities.

Easy to say, but how do we integrate gender traits?

The Leadership Intelligence Quotient

I use a tool called the Integrated Leadership Quotient (ILQ). The ILQ demonstrates how we can utilize the strengths of both masculine and feminine styles.

Here's an example of how it works:

First, let's look at traditional ideas about masculine and feminine styles when it comes to the task of planning. When viewed through a gender-specific lens, men draw on data and analysis, and women view the big picture, connecting a range of seemingly disparate dots into a cogent strategy. Using the same lens to study communication, the feminine style is often characterized as open and collaborative, while the masculine is described as directive and driven.

Most of us may default to these gender-related traits simply because they are familiar. The ILQ provides the opportunity to identify our habits and understand how they impact us as leaders. Once we are aware of personal styles, we can then make different choices. We can select behaviors based on effective leadership - and not on time-worn behavior patterns. In this way, the ILQ allows both men and women to assess their current capabilities and expand into their potential as strong, integrated leaders.

The Trend is Clear

Just as a discussion about the differences between men and women was a hot topic a few decades ago, we now need to explore both sets of skills so we can use all of them to keep our businesses competitive.

I meet with many leaders who are ready to employ both logic and intuition, to recognize both facts and feelings, and to express both technical competence and emotional integrity. They do not have to come across as one way or another. Successful leaders use a full suite of traits to produce the best outcomes possible. Rather than being constrained by outmoded ideas, they choose to integrate styles - and then they get the job done.

The future will require leaders who can seamlessly engage all their strengths, whether they were once considered masculine or feminine. I predict that in a few short years, these labels will not matter. We will not judge by gender. The success of the future requires leaders who can seamlessly engage all their strengths.

A nationally known leadership strategist, Rebecca Shambaugh has over twenty years of experience helping organizations and executives respond to critical leadership challenges and opportunities in today’s business environment. Rebecca is President and CEO of Shambaugh Leadership Group (SLG), where she founded Women In Leadership and Learning (WILL), an organization dedicated to the research, advancement, and retention of women leaders and executives. Visit for additional information.

Many more articles in Creative Leadership in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2004 by Rebecca Shambaugh. All rights reserved.

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