Are the most popular leadership traits masculine or feminine?

Doing Business Globally with Cultural Intelligence
February 1, 2016
Ignore the Experts
March 28, 2016

When we talk about the most effective leadership traits, our clients often ask us if these traits apply to both male and female leaders. Our frequent answer is, “Of course they do. Does it really matter?” The real question to ask and answer is, “What are the critical leadership traits necessary to create an awesome employee experience?”

Organizations and individual leaders ask masculine-feminine questions because, as more and more women enter the ranks of leadership with a variety of different styles, we are reminded of old paradigms some may still value. Like the antiquated notion of macho personalities, command-and-control, or top-down management, that sadly still prevail in some organizations today.

male female leadersAs I watched the 2016 presidential candidate debates, I couldn’t help but notice the competitiveness, ego, and grandstanding exerted—all commonly acknowledged as masculine approaches to leadership. I use this extreme example to emphasize the stark difference between recent displays of machismo and the new kind of leadership winning over the corporate world.

Organizations worldwide have been embracing and rewarding more gentle approaches coming from a more diverse population of global leaders. In a world where money is no longer the prime motivator for employees, newer leadership focuses rather on making work interesting, simpler, more fulfilling, and rewarding for their employees.

More and more organizations have moved to a team-based model where the need to collaborate, communicate, and influence—not only within a team and across the organization but also across the world—ensures excellent customer experiences.

Leading these teams of people requires leaders to understand what brings the best out of everyone, individually and collectively. What motivates people? How do they see themselves? What do they value? How do they express those values in typical workplace behavior?

It also demands that leaders know when to be hands-on and hands-off, understanding human behavior, and treating people as human beings. It’s tempting to call this a more feminine approach of care and consideration. I have however seen many male leaders with these traits. So it is clear that our biases and experiences play a huge role in how we define leadership.

Lately, in fact, people have been talking about the need for these so-called feminine leadership traits. In research conducted by John Gerzema, the chief insights officer at Young & Rubicam, two-thirds of 64,000 respondents from 13 countries felt the world would be better off if more men thought more like women.

Gerzema also found that survey participants identified empathy, intuition, expressiveness, flexibility, and patience among the feminine traits they wanted more of from their leaders. That’s how people feel. What about the cold, hard results?

Not long ago, the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley, determined that companies with more women on their boards perform better in a number of areas.

Traits traditionally attributed to men—decisiveness, dominance, confidence—not only have been proven to be less effective today, we now know they are just as likely to be found in women. According to Gerzema’s research, 81 percent looked for a combination of male and female traits in leadership.

While studying leadership in major corporations in order to compile their most recent list of the World’s Greatest Leaders, Fortune magazine identified 15 women who best exemplify what they call the new model of leadership. Geoff Colvin, author of “The trait that makes women great leaders,” describes the model.

It’s a model in which leaders must influence a wide range of groups over which they have no direct authority, while those groups typically command much power of their own through their access to information and their ability to communicate with practically anyone. That kind of world demands a new kind of leadership, and while plenty of men on the list have mastered it, every one of the women has done it. And that’s no surprise.

Colvin goes on to explain that, “…women are better suited to this kind of leadership.” Women more readily and frequently express empathy. “They’re better than men at sensing the thoughts and feelings of others and responding in some appropriate way,” he explains.

Women, traditionally, value reciprocal relationships more highly than men do, according to Colvin. “Even at early ages, the way girls talk is much more cooperative and collaborative than the way boys talk; girls show more concern for fairness than boys do.”

Even though women may be more naturally suited to the new model of leadership, men can and must adapt to it in a world that rewards leadership skills focused on relationships rather than old-school, top-down authority.

Which is why at Align4Profit we have shifted our focus away from the male-female debate to concentrate on six essential qualities that make leaders of either gender more effective. Namely the six Leadership Attraction Powers.

The aim of this approach is to help leaders of all kinds create awesome employee experiences. Which boils down to treating employees like fully formed adults and empowering them and encouraging them to behave as mature adults.

This approach not only serves male and female leaders equally well, it also spans generational and cultural differences. For all these reasons, we embrace diversity and focus on effective leadership regardless of superficial differences.

Leadership Attraction Powers

An organization’s most compelling and promising competitive advantage will be to focus on the employee experience. In order to create the most effective employee experience, women and men leaders have to be aware of how they affect others.

We have identified six aspects of personality that have the greatest impact on people: Accountability, Empathy, Maturity, Engagement, Reflection, and Tenacity. These traits either attract or repel employees depending on how leaders use them.

As you consider each, you may feel that some powers come more naturally or are more likely to be attributed to women, some to men. Do your best to put those feelings aside and consider rather to what degree you and your leaders express each power and how that affects others.


accountability-3_textManaging expectations lies at the heart of managing performance. The skill to drive bold accountability across the organization and within everyone helps move the organization in an aligned direction toward sustainable growth and profit. When male or female leaders fail to hold employees accountable, they come off as passive. When they drive too hard, they present themselves as aggressive micromanagers.


Empathy_3_textGreat managers take a personal interest in their employees. They encourage collaboration that builds trust, and trust leads to better working relationships. Trust also creates a safe environment for achievement and makes work easier and more effective. With too little empathy, a leader may seem aloof. Having too much empathy, or being too understanding, unintentionally enables poor performance, allowing ineffectiveness or inappropriate behavior to flourish.


Maturity_3_textWe define maturity from two perspectives—self-management and the ability to empower others. Failing to manage one’s negative emotional reactions can derail productivity and erode morale. Empowering others encourages employees to take responsibility for their performance. A low level of maturity makes a female or male leader seem immature, demonstrated often with highly emotional reactions. Too much “just the facts ma’am, just the facts” makes one come off as inflexible, inhuman, and even arrogant.


Engagement_3_textGreat managers create an energetic environment with a creative spirit. They introduce some fun as well. They are quick to recognize others and celebrate their success. When underused a leader seems sullen and when overused, flippant. A disengaged leader can overuse sarcasm as a means to communicate important messages.


Reflection_3_textThe best men and women in leadership are consistent about carving out reflection time to think about and plan for the future and how they as leaders need to behave to get the best out of everyone. An overly reflective leader seems compliant or may appear victimized. Too little reflection can cause leaders to wear their heart on their sleeve and miss opportunities to address more complex challenges.


TeacityCourage and tenacity are kindred spirits. First leaders need courage to pursue their goals fearlessly. Next they need tenacity, the persistence to stick with their pursuits even when things gets tough. When underused a leader seems cowardly or submissive and when overused, she or he appears belligerent.

All leaders possess some level of all six of the innate strengths and hidden assets just described. But all leaders also have blind spots, limitations, and developmental needs. How they use their strengths and their ability to manage or minimize their flaws distinguishes better leaders from the mediocre.

Leaders with a keen and accurate awareness of the psychological and physiological impact they have on the people they lead can effectively apply their strengths and reduce the impact of their limitations.

What about your leaders?

Align4Profit helps leaders with self-development by training them how to appropriately apply their unique resource of six Attraction Powers. To see how you and your leaders use their Attraction Powers, please feel free to take our Mini Leadership Attraction Profile. It costs nothing and will tell you a lot.

In today’s competitive business environment, organizations must work to attract, develop, and retain the best talent. With the best talent in place, the challenge of aligning leaders and employees remains.

That job rests with leaders charged with executing the leadership competencies, coaching practices, and performance management mandates of your organization. Before leaders can improve their ability to influence others, however, they need to understand what they are already doing to attract or repel their employees.

Join me in the quest to pursue better leadership overall and minimize the labeling of traits as masculine and feminine. Join me in my vision of helping you create an awesome employee experience.

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Helanie Scott
Helanie Scott
Helanie (pronounced yeh-LAH-nee) Scott, CEO and founder of Align4Profit in Dallas, Texas, has driven stunning leadership and cultural transformations for an impressive list of organizations. She has mastered the ability to connect with her audiences in the boardroom, classroom, on stage, or in one-on-one coaching sessions. Helanie’s Align4Profit clients rave at the way her engaging programs freshen outdated mindsets and deliver results-oriented, aligned action.